This is the story of Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald’s global fast food empire. Except, as it turns out, he wasn’t the real founder at all.
It is 1954 and Ray (Michael Keaton) is an unsuccessful travelling salesman in his fifties. Then he comes across the McDonald brothers, fat and jolly Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and rather grumpy Dick (Nick Offerman), who have invented a revolutionary assembly line method for their little burger stand in California – a limited and cheap menu (burgers at 15c), no seating, no frills and a very quick turnover. Ray immediately sees the potential here and persuades the brothers to let him be their franchise agent, taking on board Dick’s eye catching design of the now iconic golden arches as the franchise’s logo.
Very soon Ray has McDonald’s fast food restaurants all over the mid West with plans to extend over the whole country. But he is running into financial pressure due to his small percentage of the profits and is frustrated by the brothers’ insistence that they give personal approval to every move in the game in order to keep up the high standards of their original burger stands. Then he meets financial whiz kid Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who points out that the way to make money is to buy the land on which the restaurants are to be build and lease it, thus taking total control. Ray bullies the brothers into a new contract, goes on to build the global empire we know today, eventually cutting the brothers out, even to the extent of taking over their name, so they can no longer use it for their own restaurant. The name you see has the reassuring and homely connotations of the “Aunt Mary’s apple pie” genre that America holds dear – so it sells fast food.
So we effectively have here the growth of contemporary American capitalism told through one story. Business deals may be of great interest to businessmen but they don’t per se make great drama – characters do that. And the always engaging and charismatic Keaton gives the film a fascinating, morally ambiguous central figure. He has charm and energy, we identify with his vision, but he is also an unscrupulous bastard. The brothers represent what America sees as its old style, traditional business values – a creative idea, a quality product with good ingredients and taking care of their staff – whereas Ray is the ruthless face of contemporary capitalism in the making. His motto is based on a motivation guru record he plays constantly (we’re talking vinyl LP here – this is the fifties), whose message is “forget talent and education, it is persistence that wins the day.” On a par with “Greed is good”.
Supporting Keaton’s high octane performance are Laura Dern as his long suffering wife, Patrick Wilson as the charming Rollo Smith, one of Ray’s franchisees and Linda Cardellini as Rollo’s wife Joan, who immediately catches Ray’s eye. They are two of a kind. Joan too has a sharp eye for making a buck and comes up with the bright idea of speeding up service and profits by introducing an instant powder based milk shake with no milk and no ice cream in it. We are assured at the end of the film that McDonald’s have now re-introduced ice cream into their milk shakes – well, that’s alright then, isn’t it?
The film like the character of Ray comes over as morally ambiguous – and all the more interesting for that. It “puts the record straight” in terms of giving the McDonald brothers their place in business history but Ray in art as in life squeezes them out of the picture. The McDonald family was happy to co-operate in the development of the film, while the filmmakers’ use of the logo is apparently protected by the First Amendment concept of “fair use” that generally permits incorporation of trademarks in art. One wonders though what the present day McDonald’s thinks of this less than flattering portrait of the corporation’s development. So far they appear to have kept schtum.
Review by Carol Allen