Saturday, April 22, 2017

Stubs - The Founder

The Founder (2016) Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak, Laura Dern. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Screenplay by Robert D. Siegel. Produced by: Don Handfield, Karen Lunder, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Ryder. Run Time: 115 minutes. U.S. Color Biography, Drama

If you’re looking for another reason not to eat at McDonald’s then look no further than The Founder, the story of how Ray Kroc, played here by Michael Keaton, basically stole the McDonald’s restaurant and franchise away from the two brothers who founded the original restaurant in San Bernardino, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald.

The original McDonald's opened by the Brothers in 1948.

In 1954, Kroc, a schemer for most of his adult life and then a traveling salesman hawking Prince Castle brand milkshake multi-mixers, is finding it difficult to find buyers for his wares. That is until his assistant, June Martino (Kate Kneeland), informs him that they received an order for six of his machines. Curious about the order, he calls the McDonald’s restaurant to confirm. When he speaks to Dick, the brother ups the order to eight.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) can't believe anyone was interested in buying six of his multi-mixers.

Wondering about the demand for his product, Kroc drives out to San Bernardino and observes the restaurant in action and is surprised when his order is accurate and ready in 30 seconds. Mac offers to show Ray the restaurant and he is impressed by the efficiency of the operation.

Kroc can't believe his order is ready in 30 seconds.

He takes the two brothers out to dinner and hears their story. It seems the Speedee process was developed mostly by Dick as the two brothers tried to maximize profits and reduce costs. Having been in the drive-in business before, they are well aware, as is Kroc, of the expense and shortfalls of that type of restaurant: wrong orders that take too much time and cost too much to make.

Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald.

When Kroc returns home to suburban Chicago, he tells his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) what he’d found.  She’s heard this sort of story before, as Ray has been involved in several get-rich-quick schemes and can’t-miss ventures. But Ray is undeterred by her lack of excitement. He believes that persistence is the key to success and goes back to the brothers to pitch his idea of franchising the restaurant. The brothers seem disinterested, having been down this path before with little success, blaming the problems with keeping the quality up to their standards.  But he persists and the brothers allow him to lead their franchising efforts, with Kroc receiving 1.9% and the brothers to receive .5% of the franchisee’s profits.

Kroc opens his own McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois and uses it to solicit wealthy investors from the golf club he and his wife belong to. But he finds that they do not abide by the guidelines that led to the failure of the first franchises. Upset with them, he quits the club without telling his wife and starts to solicit middle-class franchisees. This is a successful formula and expansion happens fast, too fast for the original McDonalds, but they can’t control Kroc, who goes so far as to designate his store as #1.

Ray is a big hit when he gets to Minnesota.

When the franchise reaches Minneapolis, Ray is introduced to successful restauranteur Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson), who is an admirer of his. But Ray is an admirer of Rollie’s wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), with whom he openly flirts with. Rollie does open a franchise which Joan runs and to which Ray pays close attention.

Ray tracks the expansion of his empire.

Despite the success of franchising, Ray is running short of cash based on the low percent he gets per his contract with the brothers. They refuse to renegotiate as well, which drives Ray to try to secure an extension on the mortgage payment, since he put up his house as collateral, without telling Ethel. Though the bank turns him down, his plight is overheard by Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), a vice president of finances at Tastee Freeze and an admirer of Kroc’s success. He recommends that Kroc get into real estate, buying the sites for future franchises, then leasing the land to the franchisees as part of the deal. This will give Ray a constant source of income. He would found the Franchise Realty Corporation later changed to McDonald’s, in order to execute Sonneborn’s plan. (McDonald’s would end up being one of the largest landowners in the world.)

Of course, the brothers don’t like this, but Ray stands up to them, telling them that while they control how the restaurants are run, their influence stops at the door.

Still, there is the issue of the cost of operation, much of which is tied up in refrigerating the ice cream that goes into the shakes. Enter Joan, who has found a solution, an instant milkshake that only requires water. The brothers push back, but eventually, Ray decides to go through with it anyway, deciding that he’s tired of dealing with them.

Joan (Linda Cardellini), who already has Ray's attention, comes up with a money-saving plan.

First, Ray decides to divorce Ethel, something that he announces without fanfare at dinner one night. While he’s willing to give her alimony, the house, the car and the insurance, he’s not willing to give her any shares in his McDonald’s Corporation.

Ray tells his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) that he wants a divorce.

Ray’s next legal battle is with the brothers. Push has come to shove over the powdered milkshakes. Mac, who is diabetic, collapses and is sent to the hospital. His recovery isn’t helped when Ray shows up with a blank check. But the brothers don’t accept just yet. His lawyers negotiate a $2.7 million buyout. The brothers want to keep their own restaurant and a 10% share of profits in perpetuity, but Ray refuses to put it in the contract, telling them that his lenders wouldn’t go for it. He asks them to take his handshake on the deal, which they do.

The McDonald brothers don't know what hit them.

Afterward, when Dick asks Ray about why he didn’t just take the SpeeDee method they had shown him and started his own restaurant with that, he tells him that what he wanted was the name. To Ray, McDonald's is American. But when Dick tells him he didn’t get the name, Ray asks him are you sure? Turns out the naming rights went with the deal. While they got to keep their store, they had to change their name. Eventually, The Big M, as they called their restaurant, was put out of business by a McDonald’s Kroc opened across the street. (Oh, and to make things worse, as we learn in the epilogue, the brothers were never able to prove the handshake and therefore lost out on what would amount to $100 million a year.)

The film ends with Kroc prepping himself to meet, the then governor of California, Ronald Reagan, presenting himself as the founder of the great food empire. His new wife, Joan, tells him that the car is downstairs.

As with almost any biographic film, not everything happened exactly as portrayed in the movie. For example, while Ray did divorce Ethel, there was another wife before he married Joan, Jane Dobbins, who is nowhere to be found in this picture. Another example of omission is that Ray had to pay for the McDonald’s name before he could open his first store. Apparently, the brothers had sold the name to the Frejlack Ice Cream Company for $5,000. It cost Kroc $25,000 to buy it back.

Michael Keaton shows himself once again to be a very fine actor, playing a rather evil man as a regular guy just trying to make good. He is joined in the cast by Nick Offerman, the voice of Axe Cop, and John Carroll Lynch, who play the innovative, but conservative, McDonald brothers whose whole world is turned upside down by the huckster from Illinois. They prove hapless to stop him. Their own openness gets turned against them. Before they know it they’re left holding the paper bag.

It’s odd to see Laura Dern playing such a middle-aged cipher as Ethel. She plays the character as a sort of clone to Pat Nixon and sets up the difference between her and Joan, who screams vivaciousness by comparison.

The rest of the supporting cast is good as well, with B.J. Novak being perhaps the most dynamic of them. Justin Randell Brooke plays Fred Turner, a hamburger cooker (grill operator) who caught Ray’s attention early on and stayed with the company and rose through the ranks to eventually replace Kroc as Chairman and CEO in 1977. He is shown to be mostly in the background and while he speaks a few lines of dialogue, they aren’t really memorable and his role is sort of undefined in the movie.

Kate Kneeland plays Ray’s secretary/bookkeeper, a role that doesn’t change much during the film, though we’re told she would eventually own part of the McDonald's Corporation. While I’m sure Kneeland is a fine actress, the women’s roles in this film are mostly background characters as business, in the early 50s , was still a male dominated arena.

The film, mostly shot in Georgia as a stand-in for California and the Midwest, is very involving and while it got fairly good reviews upon release, did not do well at the box-office during its theatrical run, earning less than it cost to make, $25 million. But new films don’t die and this will be around in various forms for years to come and if you have a chance to see it, you will be drawn in.

Ray Kroc liked to pretend he was the Founder of McDonald's.

If you really hate McDonald’s, and there are more than a few of you out there, then The Founder will just give you one more reason to stay away. Kroc stole the company, name and golden arches (Dick’s idea) out from under the true founders of the company. While I’m not a habitual eater there myself, I might also stay away, if it weren’t for those Shamrock shakes in March. I’m willing to overlook Kroc’s misdeeds for one of those.

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