Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Founder.
The Founder is the story of Ray Kroc, the traveling salesman that franchised and eventually acquired the McDonald’s restaurant chain. The film shows Kroc going from one of his lowest points, failing to sell milkshake makers, to being the billionaire head of the world’s largest fast food corporation. It’s a fascinating, no holds barred peek inside the head of a man that – in a way – helped shaped modern America. In fact, modern America was built by businessmen like Kroc.
And therein lies the problem.
Early in the story, Kroc takes the McDonald brothers out to dinner to hear their story. They tell Ray about their poor beginnings. They tell him about how they got into the restaurant business after the Great Depression, and about how they created the “speedy system” that made the original McDonald’s burger stand a smash hit. It’s one of the best sequences in the movie, and for one clear reason: it has heart. It’s inspiring and uplifting how these brothers went from rags to riches (in a sense). They’re living the American Dream.
Then Ray talks them into franchising. Over the course of the film, he slowly steals everything out from under the McDonalds, right down to their name. He claims credit for the speedy system, and for the Golden Arches. The McDonalds are left with nothing, and Ray Kroc becomes a multimillionaire.
In short, Ray Kroc is pond scum.
And yet, the film creates this gray area where Kroc is a sympathetic character. Early on, he’s made fun of by his friends for being a schemer and a dreamer. He’s a guy whose business ventures have failed time and time again. His wife is getting tired of his endless hustling. He just needs one big break to get back on track, and it’s compelling to root for him (if only for a moment). So when he gets his success in the end, his own rags to riches story, is it fair to be at all happy for him? Did he get the redemption he deserved? Did he live out his own American Dream in building an empire?
Personally, I say no. Ray Kroc didn’t live out the American Dream; he perverted it. The difference between Kroc’s success and the McDonalds brothers’ is that Kroc never actually wanted to work hard himself. He consistently piggybacked off of other people’s ideas. Think about the business moves that Ray makes throughout the film:
- Ray starts the film as a traveling salesmen, trying to make money from other people’s inventions.
- He claims credit for McDonald’s restaurant and the speedy system.
- His true fortune ends up coming from real estate, an idea that he got from Harry Sonneborn.
And Kroc steals more than just business ideas. He actually steals the wife of one of his franchisees, leaving the wife he’s been mistreating and neglecting for years. On top of that, he steals a speech from an old motivational record he would listen to on his travels. This movie portrays Ray Kroc as the least original person in human history.
Then, before the closing credits roll, the audience is reminded about how much money the McDonald’s Corporation has donated to charities over the years, and that it feeds 1% of the world’s population each day. So from a utilitarian point of view, was Ray Kroc’s scheming worth it?
Ultimately, it’s entirely up to you as an audience member and a free thinking human being to decide if Ray Kroc was a monster or a genius, and that’s part of The Founder‘s beauty.