When John Travolta's Vincent Vega told the tale of his visit to a Parisian McDonald's in the opening of the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, his noted that his "Royale with Cheese" had the same ingredients, the same taste, and the same packaging as his familiar Quarter Pounder with Cheese back home in Los Angeles. Presumably, his foamy sesame-seed bun still stuck to the cheese and meat as though affixed with some adhesive, his pickles and onions were still tucked away with geometric precision, and his beef patty was the same level of thickness, down to the millimeter ("they got the metric system there").
That's what global food standardization looks like, and it is the legacy of Ray Kroc, the Illinois businessman who turned himself into the original McDonald's kingpin — the company's own Royalty with Cheese. But Kroc wasn't a chef, and he wasn't responsible for the innovative kitchen design that allowed the restaurant to churn out hundreds of burgers a minute as far back as the 1950s. Instead, as the brightly colored and perversely entertaining new biopic The Founder chronicles, Kroc took a more distinctively American approach to empire-building: He recognized someone else's good idea, exploited it to high heaven, and then, when he became rich and powerful enough, cut the source out altogether.
When The Founder opens in the carhop decade, Kroc is just another huckster on the road, hoofing it to drive-ins around the country to sell them on a speedy milkshake-making device. He's brought to sleazy, narcissistic life by Michael Keaton, who possesses an energy like no other actor, because his characters often seem like they're desperately trying to bargain with you on the concept of their very existence. Kroc is circling the drain like the door-to-door Bible sellers in the documentary Salesman, hundreds of miles away from the American dream — until he meets the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino, California, who have perfected a speedy, hyper-efficient model for a burger joint. In their tightly coordinated assembly-line kitchen, every patty and fry comes out lickety-split while hordes of workers dodge each other in mad rushes to wrap their food in paper. "A ballet of meat," one of the brothers says with pride.
We are never given any indication that Kroc knows how to cook (that would have been interesting to see), and yet as soon as he encounters McDonald's, he knows he's staring at a medium-rare goldmine. He convinces the cautious, protective Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) to sign away franchise rights, and thereafter sets out to litter the Midwest, and eventually the country, with those fast-flipping burgers. Kroc tells the McDonald brothers he wants their arches to be as recognizable and omniscient across the U.S. as crosses and American flags, and indeed, those same crosses and flags hover in the background of many of the scenes. Director John Lee Hancock, who helmed The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, another pop-history project of a McDonald's corporate partner, is not subtle with his themes.
Keaton already looks so much like a cartoon character, with his Batman-shaped head and his weaselly smile, that any scene staged with him in the center can't help but feel like satire. When Kroc arrives at the grand opening of a franchise in Minneapolis and is greeted with an astronaut's welcome, complete with screaming crowds and cheerleaders, he throws up his arms with glee, and he might as well be in a South Park episode. Kroc quickly realizes he's at home in the yellow neon glow of his beloved franchises, and there are several moments when The Founder seems close to just giving in, reveling in his success at morphing the American diet and coating everything in a thick glaze of ketchup and irony.
So it's the supporting cast that provides the real-world consequences for Kroc's behavior, including his first wife Ethel (Laura Dern), whose vision for a steady suburbanite life is alien to him; the softie duo of Lynch and Offerman, who must watch every last principle of their business ethics drift away under his aggressive expansion; and, ultimately, Joan (Linda Cardellini), a blonde bombshell married to a McDonald's franchise owner, whose piano talents and money-saving ideas are Kroc's perfect match. In the film's most sensual scene, Joan makes Ray a powdered milkshake drink as they dine together in her own husband's high-end steakhouse, her lipstick leaving a ring around the fake vanilla flavor. Kroc is "a vanilla man," and has an awful lot of confidence in his flavor choice.
The film's decidedly unappealing view of Kroc — this is very much the chronicle of a self-made villain — puts him in line with the fictional protagonists of screenwriter Robert D. Siegel's other films: Mickey Rourke's fading costumed grappler in The Wrestler and Patton Oswalt's obsessive football stalker in Big Fan. All are uniquely American stories, odd mixtures of success and failure who have allowed their lives to be consumed by pop symbology. The Founder's dialogue is more heavy-handed than Siegel's earlier efforts, with all of Kroc's talk of how his measure of success could be found "only in America." Of course, Ronald Reagan gets name-checked by the film's end.
But there's still something chilling and all too familiar about how Kroc's nastiness only super-sizes in proportion to the amount of power he gains. After the McDonald brothers veto Joan's powder idea, on the grounds that a milkshake should be made with, y'know, milk, Kroc treats their contract as an outdated nuisance, instructing his lawyer to "make it go away." Even once they agree to be bought out, Kroc can't resist some final humiliations, opening a franchise across the street from their original location to make them suffer for daring to oppose him. He figures the rules no longer apply to him.
And, with a view of history from atop an all-American mountain of fries, he proves himself right.
Editor's note: Upon her death in 2003, Joan Kroc bequeathed over $200 million of the McDonald's fortune to NPR, the largest single donation in NPR history.