Ray Kroc was a shitty person. I didn’t know him personally, but we can safely assume that he alienated people throughout his life so he could die surrounded by piles of money. He was, in other words, a flawed character.
But you wouldn’t know that from the new John Lee Hancock biopic, “The Founder.” The film tells the story of how Kroc meets the McDonalds brothers and learns about their inventive business; burger and fry orders ready moments after a customer orders it. The brother’s “speedee system” was marked down to a science with which all other fast food restaurants after it have based their models. McDonald’s, as much as we make fun of it today, is a giant in American food history.
Also American? Dick and Mac McDonald, played by (the always perfect) Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, want their business to remain small and focused on quality over quantity. Fittingly, Kroc rolls into the brothers’ lives in 1954 insisting they franchise the idea, not because of the wholesome family values they founded it on, but because he’s looking for a way to get out of selling milkshake machines and get fucking rich. Ah, greed. Now that’s American.
By 1961, Kroc had quickly grown McDonald’s in several pockets of the U.S. The McDonalds brothers were frustrated by how fast Kroc was franchising, especially when he rarely asked them for permission to make changes to the McDonald’s model, which was a stipulation in their original contract. Kroc’s response to their displeasure was to start buying the land McDonald’s were being built on so he could make more bank for himself while he sold the land to new franchise owners, charging them to build on the land he owned. The brothers were horrified as they slowly watched their small family business become anything but small.
Being the savvy business man he was, Kroc knew the final thing he really needed to take McDonald’s and run was that glorious name. So, he bought the entire company and idea from the brothers for 2.7 Million dollars, much to their despair.
Pretty shitty, right?
Eh, you probably wouldn’t pick that up from the movie. To be fair, you do, but not in the way I had hoped. Maybe I’ve seen too many doom and gloom films to make me bitter, but I love a good bad guy. Ray Kroc is the perfect bad guy (who was a real person no less!) and yet he still seemed freakishly relatable by the end of “Theo Founder.” When we first meet Kroc he’s a struggling salesman and although he’s always looking for the next big deal, the audience feels for him as he faces rejection.
His manipulate-people-until-you-get-what-you-want way of doing business only seems troubling in the film, not down-right diabolical like I imagine it was in the 60s when times were simpler and people were more innocent. Somehow Kroc comes off not as a good guy, but an anti-hero that succeeded in business and so can you! But his story is not that of Jordan Belfort. He doesn’t apologize for taking a business away from the innocent McDonalds brothers. The film just shrugs off Kroc’s actions as it comes to a close with a scene of him hanging out with his wife (whom he stole from a franchise owner) in his giant house.
Then again, in our own troubling times, maybe that type of manipulation has just become part of our normalcy.
Maybe I’m too much of a cynic to buy what “The Founder” was selling. Or maybe I hate that I came out of the theater wondering what happened to the poor McDonalds brothers, who just trusted the wrong guy at the wrong time. Like the food the film is about, something about it seems too good to be true.