The Founder ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A gem of a movie, this one, like the Social Network, is about the creation of a mega-establishment, and the betrayal that came with its success.
A really special and interesting movie, this one tells a fascinating story about manipulation and trickery and getting ahead in any way possible, even if it means stepping on the neck of the little guy. Ray Croc is a businessman who is out to make it rich, and he’s got a pretty hard life as a salesman who tries selling milk shake makers to restaurants who mostly want nothing to do with him. But then he stumbles on a restaurant that is doing incredibly well. This small spot called McDonalds has found a unique approach to making fast food, and Ray loves it. He convinces the brothers who own the place to let him franchise the restaurant and open up another one. And then another and another. Pretty soon Ray has the country filled with these restaurants, and that’s when he starts pulling the chairs out from under the brothers. The first half of the movie soars on energy and momentum. It is all about how McDonalds works, how it came about, and why it is such a monster success. The second half is about the sellout, and the ideas and details are suddenly not made as clear. It still works, but not nearly as good as the first half did. Whereas the first half of the movie was hitting it out of the park on every pitch, in the second half, only some of the ideas work, (like the powdered milk shake situation,) while others don’t, (Ray and the woman he ends up falling for, despite her being married.) The movie really captures something that we rarely get to see in the way of a character who is willing to do whatever it takes, including cutting out the people who got him there. In many ways this film is like The Social Network meets Night Crawler. That’s some great company to be in, and this film fits right up there, alongside those movies, as something pretty excellent and incredibly dark.
The Founder is a fantastic movie. It’s the true story of a man who found a niche idea, (even if it wasn’t his,) and figured out a way to exploit it and make a lot of money off of it. The movie chronicles the man before, during, and after all of this success. And all three parts are pretty entertaining. There’s a hell of a story here, and a wonderful cast really brings it to life. Michael Keaton continues his string of monster successes, (Birdman, Spotlight, and now this.) He knocks it out of the park once again as Ray Croc, a man who would do anything for money, and pretty much does. As Ray says in an analogy towards the later part of the film, “the difference between you and me is that if the guy who was my competitor was drowning, I’d have no problem sticking a hose in his mouth.” This is not a nice guy. Like the characters in other “willing to do whatever it takes to win” films,, like Night Crawler and The Social Network, Ray Croc is kind of a villain. But he sure is a lot of fun to watch.
The film starts with Croc giving a pitch. He is trying to sell a multi-shake maker to fast food restaurants. This machine can make five milk shakes all at once. Croc has a great pitch where he looks at the buyer’s side, saying, “why would I need to make five times as many milk shakes when I’m not even selling all the ones we make now?” Croc’s answer is what he calls the chicken and the egg situation. A customer at the restaurant knows how long it takes the place to make a milk shake and how long he will be waiting, so he factors this into his decision when he decides not to get one. But now, if the wait time were taken out of the equation, the customer would only be considering whether or not he wants a milk shake in his hand at that very moment, and therefore the restaurant would be selling many more shakes. It’s a good pitch, but it doesn’t get Ray very far. Still, it works for an opening scene to the movie because it represents the kind of logic and momentum we will be looking at here. This movie is about business and products and offering something different than what’s out there on the market, and the opening scene kicks those ideas off with lots of energy.
Ray travels around the country trying to sell his multi-mixer. He mostly gets doors slammed in his face. At one point he stops at a fast food restaurant and waits over twenty minutes as he just sits there in his car. The way these places work during this time, (the fifties,) is you order and then sit and wait and eventually a waitress brings the food up to your car and puts it on a tray that hangs from your window. Only with so much going on and so many cars to run back and forth to, the waitress often gets the order completely wrong. Like the opening scene of the movie, this fast food eating scene may not progress the actual plot, but it certainly gives us an introduction to what the market and competition are like, before we see how Ray comes in and changes it up.
And then we arrive at McDonalds. Ray gets a call from his office that says this one restaurant placed on order for six of his multi-mixers. Now Ray is a guy who has had a really tough time selling just one of these. So hearing that this one place ordered six of them sets alarm bells off in his head. Something must be wrong, he thinks. Especially when Ray calls to confirm the order and they up the number of mixers to eight. Ray drives down to the restaurant to check out the operation for himself, and that’s where we get one of the best scenes in the movie.
Ray poses as a customer to get some food and see exactly how this place works. He waits in a long line that he is told will move quickly. And it does. When Ray gets to the window, he is surprised by everything he sees. First, that the place is just giving out food with no silverware. Ray asks where he should eat it and the kid at the window gives him ideas. Sitting on a bench, in your car, or you can just take it with you. And best of all, the order is ready in moments. Ray doesn’t believe it. He actually thinks there’s a mistake. That can’t be mine, he says, I just ordered. Only it is his order, ready to go, in just moments. Ray sits at a bench eating next to a family and eventually one of the owners comes over to check how everything is. That’s when Ray lets it be known who he is and why he’s there.
This leads us to Ray meeting the other brother and getting a tour of the place. He walks through the kitchen and can’t believe how much down to perfection these guys have got their operation. They monitor everything and make sure it is all up to perfection. There is a precise number of pickles and number of drops of ketchup and mustard on every burger, for example. Ray takes the brothers out to dinner that night and that’s when he gets the story of how this all came about. The guys had a regular restaurant that sold lots of items for a while, and it wasn’t doing so well. So they decided to close down and reorganize, and focus on only three products. The three that were selling the most. And that became all they sold. But they sold them to perfection. One of the best scenes in the movie comes when we see the two brothers training their kitchen staff, using a tennis court to practice movement. We keep watching the scene from overhead birds-eye-view shots so that we can see what the brothers have drawn on the floor of the tennis court in chalk. They’ve outlined three different layouts of what the kitchen could look like, to exact measurement and proportion, and they practice running the kitchen staff through each one to see which works best.
These brothers are a lot of fun. They are the geniuses behind the ideas in this movie, and they are also nice, wholesome, classy guys. Nick Offerman plays Dick MacDonald, the louder and tougher one. John Carrol Lynch plays Mac MacDonald, the quieter, but calmer one. The movie does a fantastic job of explaining the operation, how it is run, and how it came about. And all of this happens in the first thirty minutes. At that point, you’re saying, “if this movie can keep this up for it’s entire duration, it’s going to be a remarkable film.” It can’t. Once the brothers stop being major parts of the story, the movie starts to go downhill a little. Nothing major, but it’s just that the energy and excitement starts to dwindle.
Ray has the idea to franchise the company. That means he wants to open up another MacDonald in another state using the exact ingredients and ideas that the brothers came up with. And he will pay them for it. The boys are reluctant, but Ray keeps coming back and trying out are approaches. He is incredibly persistent, at one point saying the brothers shouldn’t do it for themselves, they should do it for America. Everything is working out great, but then Ray starts going out on his own, offering other people he meets to open up their own MacDonald restaurants. The brothers are still involved and still get paid every time a new spot opens up, but they seem to be losing control more and more.
And somewhere in the second half, things change. This is where the ideas start to get a little foggy and the movie even loses its focus. When it narrows in on the details, like a powdered shake that tastes just like a milk shake only doesn’t use any milk, and therefore doesn’t have to be refrigerated, we get some great ideas. This powdered shake ends up saving the company tons of money. But the brothers won’t buy into it, and soon Ray is having these shake formulas shipped to every McDonalds restaurant around except for that of the brothers. They are supposed to have final say in what goes on at the restaurants that are using their name, only Ray doesn’t follow these rules. He breaks his contract and dares the brothers to sue him, claiming they would probably win if the case was ever settled. But they don’t have enough money to see the case through and he does.
While ideas like this powdered shake situation work, because the details are explained, there is plenty that happens in the second half, which just kind of washes over us. How did Ray end up with more money than the brothers, for example? Weren’t they getting paid every time a new McDonalds opened up, and getting paid more than Ray was? And the romance situation, where Ray apparently steals another man’s wife, would have been incredibly interesting if they actually showed it. Instead, the movie shows the before and the after, but never the during. We see him being interested in the woman, and then later we see him married to the woman, but never get the story of how it happened. On the one hand, maybe we don’t get the story because this is the movie about the McDonalds takeover and not of the character Ray Croc. On the other hand, the movie sure makes a point to show us Ray take interest in this woman, but never follows through on that. The movie is great, but it definitely slows down a little in the second half, and could have explained a little more. Still, with everything this film has going on, including Ray needing to find the right people to open up restaurants and getting mad at his country club friends when they start changing the menus at their McDonald’s restaurants that he helped them open, and not caring about the quality and upkeep of the place, there is so much to like about this film.