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Movie Review

There was once a day when "fast food" wasn't all that fast. When it came on plates, not paper, and when the silverware was metal, not plastic. No mass assembly line here. Just fresh, piping-hot food brought to your car by a smiling, roller-skating waitress.

Ray Kroc knew all about that brand of early-1950s casual-food goodness. As a traveling shake-mixer salesman, he ate it practically every day.

And you know what? He kinda hated it.

Sure, you didn't have to get out of your car to get your lunch at those casual drive-in restaurants. But you might sit for half an hour before the food arrived—and you'd be lucky to get what you ordered. Those drive-ins were also filled with young jeans-wearing hoodlums and teens looking to pick up the nearest bobby-soxer to cut a rug with. Yeah, back in the oh-so-conservative 1950s, those places looked about as family friendly as a mosh pit does today.

Then one day, Kroc gets a call from his secretary, saying some restaurant out in California wants six of his massive shake mixers.

Six? That can't be right, Kroc figures. What single restaurant would need to sell so many shakes? So he calls the place up and asks for clarification.

"Better make it eight," the voice says on the other end of the line.

Kroc, curiosity piqued, turns his car toward California—San Bernardino, to be precise—to see for himself what's going on with this strange little restaurant. When he arrives, Kroc realizes it's far stranger than he ever imagined.

The place sells just a handful of items. Hamburgers and French fries mostly. The food doesn't come with dishes or silverware. Why, you can't even eat inside. And the restaurant certainly doesn't serve you. No, you actually have to get out of your car, walk up to a window and place your own order.

But that's just what people are doing. Lots of them. They stand in line, patiently waiting for their 15-cent hamburgers and fries. And when Kroc gets in line himself and slaps down a couple quarters for a hamburger, fries and a Coke, he discovers the strangest thing of all.

He's handed his change. And then he's handed his order.

He's been in line for all of 30 seconds.

It's called McDonald's. And in 1954, the world hadn't seen anything like it. Brothers Mac and Dick McDonald own the place, and they've got the operation down to a science. Their success, they later tell Kroc, is predicated on just two things: quality food made fast. They're not getting rich, but they're doing just fine, thanks. They're innovatively filling a niche in the community, and that's all the success they're looking for.

But Kroc's not one for modest success. No, he's thinking bigger than that. Much bigger. When he leaves California, the wheels in his brain are spinning faster than the wheels on his car. He wants a piece of this hot-off-the-grill idea, and he wants it fast—as fast as a McDonald's burger with its five squirts of ketchup and two pickles. He wants to bring this tiny San Bernardino restaurant experience to the rest of the country. Maybe the world. And he won't let anyone get in his way.

Not even the McDonald brothers themselves.

Positive Elements

Ray Kroc went on to turn McDonald's into the ubiquitous and iconic fast-food behemoth it is today, of course, taking most of the credit along the way. But McDonald's titular "founder," as bad as he sometimes comes across here, has his good qualities, too.

Early on, we see Kroc listening to a motivational vinyl record that extolls persistence. Genius and talent, the motivational speaker tells Kroc, are overrated. The world is filled with loads of talented failures. But hard work and persistence always pay off, he hears.

And Kroc, for all his faults, is nothing if not persistent. He pounds on the McDonald brothers' door until they finally agree to partner with him. When Kroc launches his own McDonald's franchise, he works tirelessly to make sure it's as clean and efficient as the original restaurant—sweeping its walkways until they almost gleam. And when he begins selling other franchise outlets in earnest, Kroc turns to Middle America, where honest folks are willing to work just as hard as he does. He sincerely wants McDonald's restaurants to be a community focal point: a place where families can go, be treated to a quality meal and feel safe while eating there.

All that said, however, Mac and Dick McDonald are the movie's real heroes. They're honest businessmen who want to make an honest living. They're serious about holding their establishment to high standards. "It's better to have one great restaurant than 50 mediocre ones," Mac tells Kroc. And when the McDonalds finally relent and allow Kroc to franchise their restaurant idea in the Midwest, they insist on strict quality controls for every aspect of service, from food prep to how the restaurants themselves are built.

Spiritual Content

"McDonalds can be the new American church," Kroc promises the McDonald brothers. And he means it. He thinks their restaurants should embody clean, wholesome American values—values that the McDonalds embrace as well. And much later in the movie, as the brothers struggle with whether to cut ties with the pesky Kroc entirely, Mac's eyes drift to a picture of a family praying in a church—longing, it would seem, for that same sense of spiritual peace.

One of Kroc's first franchisees is a Jewish salesman hocking Catholic Bibles. (The man reminds one customer that envy is one of the seven deadly sins.) When looking for additional franchisees, Kroc often evokes American, "Christian" values in his spiel—though one would assume he modifies it somewhat when he speaks at a Jewish synagogue.

When Kroc tells his wife, Ethel, that people are beginning to come to him to buy franchises, she somewhat mockingly says, "All hail, Pope Raymond the First." "D--n right," Kroc tells her. "G--d--n right."

Sexual Content

Ray Kroc, as we learn, has a habit of taking things that aren't really his—and that includes the wife of one of his franchisees. He flirts with Joan, a pretty blonde piano player, at her husband's fine steak restaurant as the husband looks on. Later, the two talk on the telephone as Ethel lays awake nearby in bed. Shortly thereafter, Kroc divorces his wife; in the movie's coda, we see that he has married Joan. (They remained married until Kroc's death in 1984.)

Violent Content

Mac has health trouble. After a particularly aggravating phone conversation with Kroc (in which Kroc says if a competitor was drowning, "I'd stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water"), Mac collapses to the floor. In the next scene, he's in a hospital. Kroc also bangs on his car a couple of times in frustration.

Crude or Profane Language

One f-word, two s-words and a sprinkling of milder profanities, including "a--," "b--ch," "d--n" and "h---." God's name is paired with "d--n" three times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Kroc drinks quite a bit. While he's on the road selling shake machines, we see him in his hotel room with a bottle of whiskey. After business appointments, he takes swigs from a pocket flask. The minute he returns home, he pours himself a drink from the handy portable bar by the door. He and others drink during formal or makeshift business dinners, too. During one such dinner, we briefly glimpse someone in the background smoking a cigarette.

Other Negative Elements

[Spoiler Warning] Despite the safeguards the McDonald brothers sought to put in place to ensure that McDonald's restaurants retained their ethical DNA, Kroc (with the help of an advisor or two) manipulates his way into complete control of the operation. Once he's in charge, he begins to break the conditions of his contract: "Contracts are like hearts," he tells the brothers coldly. "They're made to be broken." When the brothers threaten to sue, Kroc admits that they'd have a case and probably win. But because he essentially heads the operation now—which means access to its growing cash flow—he can afford to bury the brothers in legalese until they spend their way into oblivion. The McDonald brothers eventually cave and sell their interests outright to Kroc for $2.7 million, a 1% cut of all future McDonald's proceeds and ownership of their original San Bernardino restaurant. Kroc promises them the 1% on a handshake basis. But by now we're not surprised that he reneges on the verbal contract, an agreement that would be worth (we read in a postscript) $100 million a year to the family today.

Kroc mortgages his house to finance his first franchise, but he doesn't tell his wife.

Conclusion

Throughout The Founder, Ray Kroc explicitly ties the concept of McDonald's to the concept of America itself. McDonald's represents family, he says. Community. It's committed to wholesome values. Kroc even feels the very name of the place—McDonald's—feels uniquely, reassuringly American. And indeed, the story of McDonald's—at least as represented in The Founder—could be seen as a curiously quintessential American fable, bursting with both its best and worst traits.

McDonald's, as conceived by the brothers, feels like a old-fashioned American invention, as culturally representative as baseball and apple pie. The hamburgers are good and hearty. The speed at which they're produced speaks to American innovation, an assembly-line process with roots tapping into Henry Ford's original Model T factory. Even the brothers' own backstory feels about as American as it gets: Two guys with a great idea take a risk and make it big.

Only they didn't get big enough—not for Kroc's liking.

Ray Kroc, too, represents much of what we Americans value: Hard work. Persistence. Determination. He's arguably a bigger dreamer than the McDonald brothers themselves are.

But Kroc's a schemer, too, always chasing the next buck, always eager to unleash his next big plan. His persistence begets pushiness, which in turn begets all-out ruthlessness, a desire to beat the other guy, no matter the cost. He admits that he'll never have enough—enough money, enough power, enough restaurants. Even his first wife isn't enough for him. He's not like the Brothers McDonald, satisfied with an honest, faithful living and a comfortable life. He's got to have more. Ever more. "Ambition," he tells Joan. "That's the stuff of life."

The Founder tells Ray Kroc's story, a tale of oversized success built on beef and buns. And in its cautionary subtext, it asks us, the folks in the audience, what we value. And what we should.

Like your standard Happy Meal, The Founder has content to be aware of: Some language salts the script, and its protagonist is hardly a model of healthy success. But it's also a fascinating look at the beginnings of an edible empire, a satisfying, cinematic meal that offers plenty of thoughts to chew on.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

PG-13

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc; Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald; John Carroll Lynch as Mac McDonald; Linda Cardellini as Joan Smith; B.J. Novak as Harry J. Sonneborn; Laura Dern as Ethel Kroc

Director

John Lee Hancock ( )

Distributor

The Weinstein Company

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

January 20, 2017

On Video

April 18, 2017

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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