“So, Ray,” a wealthy restaurateur asks Michael Keaton’s character, Ray Kroc, midway through the new biopic The Founder, “when did you start McDonald’s?”
In a few short years, Kroc had gone from a life of quiet desperation as a middle-aged restaurant-supply salesman to head of a multimillion-dollar fast-food chain.
Kroc smiles, stretching out the moment. Cool, charismatic, and assured, he looks around the luxurious restaurant where he is being wined and dined by Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson), one of the most acclaimed restaurant owners in America. What’s more, Kroc hasn’t failed to notice that Smith’s exquisite wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), is most definitely flirting.
"It was in 1954," Kroc says, launching into a tale of how he created McDonald’s.
Thing is, he didn’t. Not really.
The Founder, which opens Friday, traces the origins of the chain to two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who set up a burger stand in San Bernardino, Calif., in the 1940s.
The duo became famous locally for offering a select number of items that could be prepared and packaged for takeout in seconds.
The Founder, a subtle morality play, tells the story of how Kroc helped the brothers establish franchises. When they complained that his business practices were underhanded, the brothers were pushed out. Soon, they were written out of history altogether.
Later in the movie, Kroc says that, had he not taken over, McDonald’s probably would never have become a global player.
“And he’s probably right,” said screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler).
“Kroc thought of business as war, and that’s how he probably succeeded. Read the biography of anyone who has achieved greatness, and you won’t find anyone who wasn’t a complete [jerk] or was forced to act like one,” he said.
“They all seem to have a certain egoism, a narcissism. … You know, people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and our president," he said, meaning President-elect Donald Trump.
Siegel noted that Kroc’s autobiography, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s, contains virtually no references to Kroc’s family life. “It’s so interesting to write a 300-some-page book about your life and never really discuss your kids or your family.”
And perhaps it’s no accident that so many business leaders and visionaries “were all ruthless narcissists,” said Siegel. “Perhaps you have to be ruthless to succeed.”
Could that be the secret sauce to success in America? The Founder, which Siegel said was inspired by Mark Knopfler’s 2004 song about Kroc, “Boom, Like That,” ponders the question from an unusual direction: The story is told from Kroc’s point of view.
The movie portrays him as a lovable underdog whose tenacity and ingenuity help him conquer impossible odds. At least it starts out that way, said director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side).
Siegel’s "script was one of the most unusual I had read, because I had a strong rooting interest in Ray Kroc, and then I started asking questions about his decisions and started feeling conflicted about him. … He ends up as a pseudo-villain, if you will, at the end.”
Hancock said that every element of the film -- from the art direction and lighting to the costumes and music -- was designed to convey the gradual changes that Kroc’s character undergoes.
Kroc never quite loses the audience’s allegiance, the director said, because he starts out as such an appealing character.
“As a middle-aged man, there was so much about Kroc I could relate to, and I also love an underdog story," Hancock said. "And, yet, what happens when the underdog becomes the overlord?"
Nick Offerman (Fargo, Parks and Recreation) plays the McDonald brother who came up with the McDonald's fast-food breakthrough: cooking and serving the meal according to the model of a modern factory production line.
“The brothers were craftsmen who cared about what they made. Quality control was always important to them,” Offerman said. “I think a lot of small-business owners are probably like that.”
In The Founder, Kroc and the brothers butt heads constantly over cost-reduction. Kroc is comfortable reducing the quality if it helps the bottom line, Offerman said. The brothers are not.
“At what point does fiduciary success trump your integrity?” he wondered.
Offerman, 46, comes down "very strongly" on the side of integrity, feeling that the pendulum has swung too far toward a culture of greed.
“We have begun to run out of resources, and as we see the repercussions … we’re starting to say, ‘Hang on, maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea,’ " he said. "Hopefully, movies like [The Founder] will inspire us to think differently.”