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"THE FOUNDER"
(2017) (Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A struggling salesman sees potential in a small but successful hamburger restaurant that's systemized its operations and become wildly popular.
PLOT:
It's 1954 and Ray Kroc (MICHAEL KEATON) is having a hard time making a living selling milkshake machines to restaurants, much to the dismay of his wife, Ethel (LAURA DERN), who's watched his various business ideas and schemes come and go over the years. When he hears that one hamburger joint in San Bernardino wants to buy eight of his machines for their one store, Ray drives from Arlington Heights, Illinois to California to meet the brothers who run the place, Dick McDonald (NICK OFFERMAN) and Mac McDonald (JOHN CARROLL LYNCH).

They state they're an overnight sensation that's been thirty years in the making and show Ray how they've systemized their food preparation to speed up delivery and cut costs, including being a take-out restaurant only. Having visited plenty of restaurants across the country Ray is so impressed that he tries to convince the siblings to franchise their operation, something they initially refuse due to long-distance quality control concerns.

He eventually convinces them, however, to sign an agreement where he'll sell franchises that will operate under their rules, and he gets quite good at that. His low revenue from the agreement puts him in financial straits, however, and that further shakes his already tenuous marriage, something not helped by his obvious attraction to one of his married franchise operators, Joan Smith (LINDA CARDELLINI).

But things look up when financial whiz Harry Sonneborn (B.J. NOVAK) informs Ray that he should buy the land where future stores will exist and then lease that to such owners. That move works brilliantly but also puts him at odds with Dick and Mac who become increasingly concerned about the control he's gaining over the business. From that point on, Ray becomes ever more ruthless in his business dealings as his company grows by leaps and bounds.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
A decade ago we bought a condo in Ocean City, Maryland and noted something about the restaurants there. Not the number of them, mind you, as the place is crawling with hundreds of thousands of vacationers during the summer and thus needs plenty of places to eat. Instead, it was that unlike most places in America that have become homogenized, the vast majority of such eateries were local one-offs rather than franchise operations of national brands.

That said, one of the more notable installations of such a place is a McDonald's on the main drag that looks unlike any I'd seen in decades. While most have the familiar golden arches sign high above or out in front of the fast food joint, this one is built like in the old days where the arches run through the roof and along the sides of the entire building.

Since it was there when we first arrived, I have no idea if the place has been there for decades or was simply built to have that old look. Either way, it certainly draws the attention of our guests who always remark about the cool, bygone architectural appearance.

Similar arches play a big part in "The Founder," a dramatic biopic about legendary McDonald's CEO Ray Kroc and his involvement in growing and then usurping control of the burger joint from its original creators -- siblings Dick McDonald and Mac McDonald -- and eventually laying claim to being the founder of the fast food empire that, as the end credits make note, feeds one percent of the world's population day in and day out.

That's a fairly remarkable achievement by a then fifty-something man whose past business ideas hadn't panned out and who was having a hard time making ends meet traveling the countryside trying to sell milkshake machine to drive-ins and other such establishments.

Of course, some of that was just dumb luck, being in the right place at the right time, getting revolutionary ideas from others and persevering. We get a glimpse of the latter as we watch Kroc (Michael Keaton in a really good performance) listen to a pre-Tony Robbins era motivational album where the speaker insists that the roots of success stem from persistence more than anything else.

The future corporate tycoon certainly applies that tactic once he visits the namesake burger joint run by the McDonald's siblings (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) and ends up impressed by how they've gone all Henry Ford on fast food production and systemized things for time and cost efficiency. While they're initially hesitant about his idea to franchise their operation, they eventually cave in to his persistence and hustle.

From that point on, it's off to the profit races as Ray's success initially helps heal his strained marriage (Laura Dern plays his long-suffering and neglected wife) but then has the opposite effect as the business consumes most every waking thought and breathe. That is, at least those not paid toward a married franchise operator (Linda Cardellini) or his desire to rid himself of the brothers who want to apply the brakes hard and heavy on his aspirations.

As directed by John Lee Hancock from a screenplay by Robert D. Siegel, the film eventually evolves much like its protagonist. Early on, it's a story of American ingenuity and can-do spirit, both on Kroc's part and that of the brothers (we hear and see an explanation of how they adapted their operations as they went). But it slowly but surely switches over to something of a cautionary tale about corporate greed and business ruthlessness, and Keaton is thankfully up for the switch and makes us believe in both.

Granted, it might not go far enough in the latter aspect for some viewers (and especially critics of the fast food behemoth) and I have no idea how much of the story is true to life and how much might be embellished to one degree or another. Nonetheless, it's a captivating offering from start to finish that's tasty and juicy enough that it all goes down easily. "The Founder" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 16, 2017 / Posted January 20, 2017


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