The Founder is a powerful, sometimes moving film about the founding of the McDonald's restaurant chain. Nick Offerman (Parks & Recreation) plays Dick McDonald and John Carroll Lynch plays his brother Mac, the creators of the "speedy system" -- and, in fact, every other important aspect of McDonald's, from the limited menu to the walk-up window, from the demand for quality control to the Golden Arches logo.
Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, the ambitious dreamer who realized the potential of the McDonald brothers' system to be a franchising giant -- and made it happen.
What makes it a powerful story is that the brothers' insistence on their own interpretation of "quality" kept running up against Kroc's discoveries of what it took to make every franchise restaurant profitable.
The movie truly does not seem to take sides. We see very clearly that while the brothers created McDonald's -- and worked hard to accomplish it -- they were incapable of the flexibility that was required to take the franchise national. And while Ray Kroc's personal imperfections are laid bare, it's also clear that without him, there would have been no worldwide McDonald's and, for that matter, perhaps no fast-food industry.
Some of Kroc's obnoxious actions and decisions were absolutely necessary for the success of what he was creating; some of them were deplorable personal decisions. The most deplorable was his decision to divorce his first wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and replace her with the wife of one of his early investors. Ethel had been loyal, and as supportive as Kroc allowed her to be.
What may seem like Kroc's most outrageous business wrongdoing came when Kroc got the McDonald brothers to sign over the franchise business to his real estate company -- the tail that was now wagging the dog. He persuaded them to leave the question of their share of profits to a handshake agreement separate from the written contract.
He never paid a dime on that handshake agreement. The movie leaves no doubt that he gave his word and then broke it.
But what's easy to overlook is the way that the brothers had forced him to stick to the letter of the original contract he signed with them, never budging, refusing to renegotiate even when it was clear that Kroc, despite doing outstanding work, could not even keep his house under the original terms.
They had no compassion for his personal situation: The letter of the contract, that's what they insisted on. Is it written in the contract? No? Then tough on you, Kroc -- you signed it.
So it is poetic justice that the brothers, with all their "Is it written in the contract?" self-righteousness, willingly signed a new contract that contained not a word about their receiving any money beyond the million-plus dollars that they received on signing. Once it was signed, it might have been unethical but it was also understandable for Kroc to say, in return, "Is it written in the contract?"
No weeping for the McDonald brothers. They got a huge payday -- a million bucks was a lot more in the 1950s than it is now.
As for the "lies" that Kroc told -- claiming in the press that the Des Plaines, Illinois, restaurant was the first McDonald's, never mentioning the McDonald brothers and their San Bernardino drive-up that started everything -- it was both true-ish (Des Plaines was the first McDonald's, Inc., restaurant) and essential.
The last thing McDonald's, Inc., needed was to have reporters talking to the McDonald brothers, hearing their litany of complaints about how Kroc was "ruining" the "quality" of McDonald's -- which he definitely was not. Their assessment of Ray Kroc was both unfair (at least at first) and potentially damaging to business.
More to the point, it was the McDonald brothers who were "ruthless businessmen" before Ray Kroc turned the tables and did the "ruthless businessman" number on them.
Does that mean I'm on his side? No. I do business with people whose handshake is worth more than a paper contract. I try to do business that way myself.
All I'm saying is that I understand Ray Kroc's business actions and, even in the context of the movie, I found myself rooting for him to succeed and get out from under the thumb of that original contract with the brothers.
We love those McDonald brothers. One of the best sequences in the movie is when they first think of their "speedy system" and chalk the whole floorplan of the restaurant on a tennis court, then send their employees through what amounts to a series of rehearsals of the actions they would perform in filling people's food orders.
When the workers keep getting into each other's way, the McDonalds lay down another color of chalk in order to redesign the layout. Finally, they come up with a plan that works. So smart! And kind of thrilling to watch.
I think of that sequence as the "dream ballet," as if this were a Jerome Robbins musical.
But underneath it all, there's an emotional undercurrent -- for me, at least -- that makes this movie feel far more important than just a tale of a guy who got rich.
That's because McDonald's is so deeply rooted in my life as an American that as I think back to those early days in the 1950s and 1960s -- times I lived through -- I feel a powerful need for McDonald's to come into existence.
I was eager for Ray Kroc to make McDonald's into what it is today.
OK, I know all the bad things people say about McDonald's: It's a restaurant where you don't need teeth to eat any of the food, if you "super-size" everything you'll become a blimp, and then there's that whole "junk food" charge (which is unfair and untrue, and we all know it. Marshmallows are junk food. McDonald's burgers have actual meat. And the Egg McMuffin is seriously good food).
As a culture, we criticize and ridicule McDonald's by reflex, kind of the way we disparage television even though we're now in the golden age of TV.
But I view McDonald's through the lens of my memory.
When I was a kid, the drive-in burger place was the coolest way to have dinner. Better than most sit-down restaurants because you didn't have to get out of the car.
Our family favorite, in the Bay Area of California, was A&W Root Beer, where carhops took your order for a Papa Burger, a Mama Burger, or a Baby Burger, then brought it to your car on trays with a big glass mugs of A&W root beer -- which was then and is now the best root beer ever made.
(Don't write to me about this: Today there are a lot of root beers that I love and buy regularly; but A&W is so tied up with my childhood memories of our family at its happiest that you aren't going to change my mind.)
So into this idyllic world of drive-ins there came a newcomer. We saw the sign from the highway (El Camino Real) passing through a nearby town: the golden arches, the name McDonald's, and a prominent sign saying: "Home of the 15¢ Hamburger."
Even in the late 1950s, fifteen cents was an absurdly low price for a burger. As my mother said, "What horrible thing could they do to a hamburger to make it so cheap?"
I remember my dad's response, because it was one of my first lessons in economics. "They're probably selling their hamburgers below cost, because they make all their profits on the fries and the soft drinks. The fries are just sliced-up potatoes in hot oil, and the soft drinks are carbonated water, sugar, and a flavor syrup. They've got a huge mark-up. They could probably give the burgers away and make money -- except then people would be sure there was something wrong with them."
That was the first time I got any idea of profit margin, mark-up, and the practice of selling at a loss in order to undercut the competition.
We were never going to eat there -- my mother was clear about that. But a few years later there was another McDonald's on El Camino, this time just up the road from our house on Las Palmas Drive. It was within walking distance and on my bicycle I could get there in just a few minutes.
The price was now higher than fifteen cents, and McDonald's was an established brand by now, so even though my mom never thought of it as a good place to eat, we kids weren't actually forbidden to eat there. I only rarely had any money -- my allowance usually went to the hobby store where I bought Revell scale model buildings for my HO train set, plastic model car kits, or HO scale Airfix plastic soldiers for bedspread wars with my brothers.
But now and then I had a little money for a treat. It was at that McDonald's where I first tasted Coca-Cola -- because it had caffeine, Mormons weren't quite sure whether we were allowed to drink it. It tasted nasty, so I didn't care. Root beer was my beverage of choice, and McDonald's didn't sell it.
I have no memory of McDonald's in Mesa, Arizona, where I lived from 1964 to 1967. Instead, that was where I first ran across Jack in the Box drive-thru restaurants, which is the first place where I ever saw the system of ordering your burger from a speaker and microphone in a big plastic clown's head and then paying and picking up your food at the window. I don't know if Jack in the Box invented that system, but soon enough everybody was using it.
I went to college in Provo, Utah, where a McDonald's was located within easy walking distance of campus, on 1230 North across the street from the Fox Theater. In those days, the Fox was the best theater in town -- lots of seats, one screen. That's where I saw The Lion in Winter and Five Easy Pieces on some of my few actual dates.
Mostly, we were just a clump of drama students who wandered down from campus, grabbed whatever we could afford at McDonald's, and then had dessert at 31 Flavors on the way back.
While I was going to school, they remodeled that McDonald's to add four small tables of indoor seating, so it wasn't all about the walk-up window. That was a real boon to carless people like me and my friends.
Years later, McDonald's bought the Fox Theater, tore it down, and built one of their huge McDonald's with a playground -- the version of McDonald's that we're most familiar with now. The evolution of McDonald's went along with my whole life.
After my two-year mission in Brazil, I came home in 1973 to find that McDonald's had really expanded their menu. There was the Big Mac double-decker sandwich, and everybody in my family could recite the formula that began "two all-beef patties, special sauce ..." and however it ended. I was in Brazil drinking smoothies and eating crepes from street vendors when that slogan was constantly on the air, so I never memorized it.
McDonald's had also introduced the McNugget, which seemed brilliant to me through about three orders. It was that third McNugget meal when I bit down on a piece of chicken gristle. I'm a mouth-feel guy, when it comes to eating, and I've been suspicious of McNuggets ever since. I ordered them a few more times, but I got gristle bits more often than not and stopped ordering them ever. That's right, not for forty years.
I completely agreed with the Wendy's anti-McNugget commercial that introduced the line, "Parts is parts."
McDonald's also lost me on their milkshakes. I'd been content with them for a long time, even though I knew they weren't made from ice cream churned up with milk in a milkshake mixer. But I stopped drinking them after a clerk in that McDonald's on 1230 North in Provo took my order for a chocolate shake and, instead of dispensing it from their milkshake machine, pulled a pre-served cup from a freezer.
It wasn't drinkable. It was a block of foamy ice in a cup. I threw it away as I left the store and have never bought a McDonald's shake since then. I only order milkshakes now from burger places that make them with ice cream in a metal cup they churn on a mixer.
By then there were plenty of fast food places. I never really warmed to Wendy's, though, with their square beef patties. Yes, the corners of the square stuck out beyond the bun, so you never lost track of "where's the beef," but that was too much meat for me. The Wendy's "milkshake" was soft-serve ice cream, the Frosty -- but it wasn't a milkshake, period.
I went through a Burger King phase, and then I was done. My Hardee's and Carl's Jr. and White Castle phases lasted through about three bites each of a burger I hated.
With all its flaws, though, McDonald's was always the place I came back to. Was it going to be brilliant cuisine? Not really. But the quality control throughout the chain was uniform. McNuggets were unreliable, but each individual restaurant prepared exactly the same McNuggets to exactly the same specifications.
When McDonald's introduced its brilliant breakfast menu, that meant that any McDonald's was going to have a genuine cooked egg on a genuine English muffin with a slice of cheese and a piece of Canadian bacon. The hash browns would be the same as everywhere else.
And when I had time to go inside and sit down, McDonald's had -- and has -- the most reliable fast-food pancakes in America. Not greasy. Good syrup. Plenty of butter. Seriously good stuff.
But it's the burgers. It's the Big Mac. When I have to eat while driving, I won't order the Big Mac because that special sauce will end up all over my shirt. For eating-while-driving, it's the quarter pounder or, if I'm in the mood, a double cheeseburger or two cheeseburgers.
This afternoon, though, after I taught my Tolkien-Lewis class, I went to the McDonald's in Lexington, Virginia, and sat down with a good book and a Big Mac and fries -- along with a tub of hot mustard sauce, the best thing about McNuggets right from the start.
Once, as a broke college student, I pretty much reenacted the diner scene from Five Easy Pieces. It was during the era when McDonald's, aware that hot mustard sauce was way more popular than McNuggets, forbade their stores to give hot mustard sauce to anyone who had not ordered McNuggets.
On a day when I was being interviewed by a reporter from the BYU student paper, we went into McDonald's and I asked for hot mustard sauce for my fries. No dice. I hadn't run into this policy before, and I couldn't believe the girl at the counter was serious. But no, she wouldn't let me buy hot mustard sauce, either -- apparently there was no button for it on the no-brain-needed cash register.
So I ordered McNuggets with hot mustard sauce, then told her to "hold the McNuggets and bring me the hot mustard sauce." She still didn't want to do it.
"I'm paying for McNuggets," I said. "I don't like McNuggets. If you bring me McNuggets I'll just leave them on the table and you won't be able to serve them to anybody else. So bring me the hot mustard sauce because I'm buying McNuggets, but don't make me any McNuggets because that would be wasteful."
She was actually angry with me, but ... she complied. The reporter wrote about the incident as if I were some kind of spoiled-brat diva. She wasn't film-savvy enough to get the reference to Five Easy Pieces -- she didn't know I was following a script. (I made no reference to anybody's knees, however. I remembered that Jack Nicholson got thrown out of the diner when he did.)
Later, when my wife and I had kids, my wife decided she was done with burgers ... for life. This was a horrifying thought, for me, because I was definitely not done with burgers. "What about when we're traveling? The kids will eat at McDonald's."
"There are non-burger things on the menu. I can eat there."
"What, McNuggets? Those are kwap."
"Salads," she reassured me. "I'll be fine."
It was when our oldest was about four and our second child was two that we embarked on a cross-country trip from South Bend, Indiana. McDonald's was our lunch stop, and about an hour later we started what became a Card family tradition: somebody always spewed the first meal of the trip all over the back seat. We learned that it wasn't McDonald's -- it was motion sickness, and it always happened.
We didn't stop going on trips. After all, the vomiter always felt so much better after upchucking. But we did learn to bring a ton of wet wipes and paper towels, and something to put them in. And we learned that you can drive for many miles in a car that smells like fast-food puke. That, too, is part of our nostalgia.
McDonald's even helped us to choose Greensboro when I got offered two jobs, one here and one in Hartford Connecticut.
When I went to Notre Dame, I had applied only to graduate schools east of the Mississippi, so that our kids would not have the mono-cultural, mono-racial experience of growing up only in Utah.
In South Bend, Indiana, we were disappointed because the only black people we actually interacted with were across the counter from us at McDonald's. Segregation in northern industrial towns was almost complete.
But when I came to Greensboro to interview for a job, I ate lunch at McDonald's and saw white and black blue-collar and white-collar workers come in together and sit down together to eat. There were also whites and blacks behind the counter.
Greensboro -- along with the whole South -- might have been famous for segregation and racial incidents, but maybe, my wife and I realized, the South was also the place where blacks and whites routinely talked to each other, worked together, and, as we saw at McDonald's, ate lunch together. So I took the Greensboro job, because it would give us the experience we had moved east for.
From family members I heard that when McDonald's opened in Europe, people didn't know how to eat an American burger. The French would take their Big Macs, set them on an open napkin on the table, and disassemble them, eating each part separately. Weird. I've never eaten at a McDonald's outside the U.S. because I don't go to other countries in order to eat American food.
Am I loyal to McDonald's? I didn't think so. It was just a place that was reliable for a certain kind of eating experience, and when I was in the mood for that, I went there.
Then I watched The Founder and realized that not only was I rooting for Ray Kroc to succeed, because I knew that his ideas were going to work and become one of the greatest success stories in the history of business, I was also emotionally involved because, you know, McDonald's.
When Michael Keaton, playing Kroc, got furious to see that one of his early franchisees was putting lettuce on their burgers, I was as angry as he was. Don't they see that they're wrecking it? Lettuce doesn't stay crisp on a burger even if it's flatulence-inducing iceberg lettuce. Why couldn't they just do it Kroc's way? I didn't want to eat their lousy burgers, I wanted them to make McDonald's burgers.
"As American as Motherhood and Apple Pie" -- that used to be a saying. Now half of America is against motherhood and is willing to kill the babies to prevent it. As for apple pie, I hate cooked fruit in any form except canned mandarin oranges. Apple pie? Nothing can save it for me.
Here's the saying that works for me: "As American as McDonald's Golden Arches." There you have it. Watching The Founder, I realized that my feelings toward McDonald's were all bound in with my memories of every stage of my life.
When Ray Kroc realized -- and started selling -- the fact that McDonald's was designed for family dining, not for teenage dating or hanging out, he hit on something powerful and true.
Even with a mother who sneered at a fifteen-cent burger and a wife who has sworn off all burgers (and she's kept that vow for nearly forty years), McDonald's is all wrapped up in memories of family and friends. McDonald's feels like a safe place. The fact that all McDonald's look alike and serve the same food makes them feel like home, no matter where you are.
Yeah, yeah, pretentious twits who are dedicated to being better than the riff-raff will sneer at this idea. "I say, McDonald's doesn't make moi feel like I'm at home." Too bad for you. I'm riff, I'm raff, and I'm riff-raff on my best days, so yep, I drive up to the drive up, or sit down with my tray of burger or breakfast; I know all the rituals and I rarely come away disappointed.
I knew McDonald's was a permanent part of the culture when I first heard the novelty song "Junk Food Junkie, in which Larry Groce sang the immortal words, "Lately I have been spotted / With a Big Mac on my breath." The line right after than mentions Colonel Sanders, but nobody remembers that line. Just the Big Mac one.
What I'm saying here is that watching The Founder isn't just about the movie. It's a very good movie, highly entertaining in its own right -- the kind of inexpensive independent film (seven million dollars, which for a move is cheap) that was made because somebody loved the idea of it.
It is completely unpretentious. Not an arty moment in it. Nobody's trying to film scenes through windows and mirrors and on doorknob reflections. If there are any bad words I don't remember them. Ray Kroc is unfaithful but we don't have to watch it, except for the painful moment when he tells his wife at dinner that he wants a divorce.
This is, I believe, the best business movie, ever. Yeah, better than Wall Street. Better than Social Network. Better than Mr. Mom or Jerry Maguire or The Wolf of Wall Street. That's mostly because of the writing and acting and directing and cinematography, which are very very good.
But it's also partly because it's about a business that is completely within the experience of almost every American, at least as a customer.
And one out of every eight of us Americans has done a stint behind the counter at McD's, so it's a business we've had our hands on -- or we know someone who has.
We know what goes into that brown McDonald's bag that they hand you through your car window. We remember how the styrofoam burger boxes were replaced with cardboard because, you know, the environment. We remember that cold on one side, hot on the other (the McDLT) was a complete bust, but the McRib comes back every year or so.
Did you know that McDonald's tried pizza? What about the McHot Dog? McDonald's Mighty Wings? McSpaghetti?
Apparently I wasn't in the test market for any of those. Horrible ideas. But McDonald's keeps trying stuff because now and then the new thing is the McMuffin or the Big Mac.
McSoup failed, but when Chick-Fil-A did chicken soup it was brilliant.
Son of Mac was a single-layer Big Mac. Why?
McPizza took eleven minutes to cook, so ... not fast food. And guess what? The pizza boxes couldn't fit through the McDonald's drive-up windows unless you tilted them on end, which is not a good move with pizza.
The McJordan was a burger with barbeque sauce and bacon on it. Did you ever see one? Me neither.
Onion nuggets. Salad McShakers. Burritos and fajitas. Remember, these were the ideas that survived the committee process.
The Founder is a wonderful movie. Everybody in it gives a wonderful performance -- from the lowliest counter servant to the rich people at Kroc's country club.
Try it. You'll like it.
There are movies that come out and I never hear about them. Sometimes the reasons are obvious. But when it comes to The Boss (2016) I'm baffled.
It stars Melissa McCarthy. Her movie about being a spy made about a billion dollars. (OK, a fifth of that, but still.) She can open a movie. But I never heard a word about The Boss.
Somehow, without me going to it, it made 63 million dollars (on a budget of half that amount) so it wasn't a flop. And now it's popping up on HBO and guess what? It's pretty good.
It's funny, but not in an in-your-face laugh-till-you-cry way. Melissa McCarthy plays the demanding, arrogant boss -- halfway to Devil Wears Prada. She's funny, and she's playing a character, not just doing shtick.
Which is a good thing, because in this smarter-than-you-expect-these-days script (co-written by McCarthy), the woman she plays, Michelle Darnell, actually has to learn something from her bitter experiences and grow into a human being.
This is funny like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, not like the Hangover franchise. So you don't have to check your brain at the door.
Melissa McCarthy is wonderful, because she can act and she knows how to be funny while still being real. But the heart of this movie is Kristen Bell. She's the "straight man" in this comedy -- the realistic observer who provides us with an anchor in the world of sanity.
She's not as funny as Melissa McCarthy, but nobody is, except Melissa McCarthy. What Kristen Bell has is a track record of wonderful, believable performances in an astonishing variety of films.
Kristen Bell was the title character in the wonderful Forgetting Sarah Marshall, her first big movie role. ("Record Executive's Daughter" in Pootie Tang was not a "big movie role.") For people who watched the TV series Veronica Mars, she rose to prominence in the title role -- and judging from the Veronica Mars movie, she was very good.
She's been working pretty much continuously in movies and TV, but I recently saw her in a cable TV showing of Hit and Run -- another good movie I never heard of when it first came out in 2012. Hit and Run was a labor of love by writer, co-director, and lead actor Dax Shepard. Yeah, you've seen him, even if you don't know him by name.
It was a comedy, but one even realer than The Boss, and Dax Shepard's generous script pretty much handed the movie over to Kristen Bell. Yet Bell never goes diva -- it ended up being a good love story between well-paired actors playing sympathetic characters caught up in some genuinely funny situations.
Dax Shepard plays a former getaway driver who is now in witness protection, but when he risks his witness protection status by driving his girlfriend -- Bell -- to Los Angeles to apply for a job, he gets chased by his former gang members ("where's the money hidden?") and the federal marshalls.
What Dax Shepard wrote for himself was the greatest apologizer in the history of film. Seriously. His character has so much to apologize for, to practically everybody, but Shepard neither wrote nor played the apologies for laughs.
We have to believe that people actually forgive him -- most especially, that Kristen Bell's character allows herself to fall back in love with him solely because of his apology.
Well, that and the fact that she needs to get to USC by a certain time and Shepard's character is the only person who can get her there.
The funniest moment, for me, comes when he goes home to his father's farm, and his father -- Beau Bridges -- greets him. You'll see.
Kristen Bell is somehow not yet a household name. Maybe it's because she performs without a lot of pointless flamboyance; I don't know. What I do know is that wherever she pops up, she's one of the best parts of the movie or show.
The Boss has Melissa McCarthy going to jail for insider trading -- yeah, yeah, Martha Stewart and all that, but really, who cares about Martha Stewart? What matters is that when McCarthy comes out, she camps in Kristen Bell's apartment, where Bell lives with her preteen daughter.
McCarthy naturally becomes involved in their lives -- oh, no, let's be accurate, she takes over their lives. But somehow Kristen Bell's character manages to draw some boundary lines and mostly makes them stick.
The plot hinges on McCarthy's rivalry with a former lover, played brilliantly by Peter Dinklage, who proves that he's got a lot more in him than Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones. He's genuinely funny and more than a little sympathetic, and both he and Melissa McCarthy sell their frantic sexual attraction to each other.
So both of these movies -- The Boss and Hit and Run -- came as good news to this insomniac. I recommend them, not as the most brilliant movies of their years, but as good entertainment with excellent performances of darn good writing.
These days, that's enough to make me happy.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com