This past weekend, as President Donald Trump was inaugurated and Washington, D.C., teemed with protesters, a movie about a ruthless businessman debuted its wide release at the box office. But the film — perhaps a veiled smear against the nation’s new commander in chief — tanked.
The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton, Batman 1989), the man hailed as the true force behind McDonald’s. While Kroc did not invent the concept of McDonald’s, or launch the first restaurant, he transformed the fast food joint from a local group of stores in the West into a sprawling national chain which expanded from sea to shining sea.
(Warning: Spoilers. Serious spoilers.)
Kroc’s is a true American success story, but it also has a dark side. Kroc went into business franchising the original McDonald’s chain, which was owned by Dick (Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation 2009-2015) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch, Shutter Island 2010). While the movie does portray the McDonald brothers as hard to work with, it has a very harsh view of Kroc’s business dealings with them.
Here are a smattering of quotes, portraying the film’s utterly negative view of Kroc’s character:
Kroc: “Contracts are like hearts, they’re made to be broken.”
Kroc: “I came up with the concept of winning. Business is war. It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor were drowning, I’d put a hose right in his mouth.”
“All hail Pope Raymond the first.” Kroc: “Damn right. God damn right.”
By the end of the film, Ray Kroc has stolen another man’s wife, refused to pay the royalties due the McDonald brothers, and opened a McDonald’s right across from their original location, driving them out of business.
Worse, the audience sees in many scenes Kroc’s marginalization of his wife Ethel (Laura Dern, Jurassic Park 1993), whom he ignores for vast stretches of time, then rips away from her circle of friends, all the while preaching about how a husband and wife should be a team and berating her for her lack of vision. Eventually, he turns to his long-suffering help mate, who is clearly struggling to do her best and says point blank, “I want a divorce.”
This megalomaniacal, ruthless, aggressive, and uncaring businessman is the very embodiment of a robber baron, and the film pulls out the stops to demonize him. I keenly remember hearing depressing words of dejection from one of my fellows in the audience: “So that’s what you have to do to get ahead in this country!”
Indeed, that seems to be the message — business and capitalism foster a dog-eat-dog world where only the wicked and the ruthless succeed. Indeed, this is how liberals blasted Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, even though he was a consummate philanthropist and family man who used his money to help the less fortunate time and time again. This is how many attack President Trump, and in his case they have more grounds to do so.
But audiences this weekend weren’t buying it — literally. Despite receiving an 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, The Founder sunk at the box office. It’s $3.76 million weekend box office may enable it to make back some of its cost (estimated at $7 million), but that sum left it far in the dust behind Split (76 percent), a film about a serial killer with multiple personalities which dominated the results with $40.2 million, and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (43 percent), third in the triple-X film series, which debuted to a respectable $20 million. It is true that The Founder only opened in 1,115 theaters, as compared to 3,038 for Split and 3,651 for xXx, but that fact itself might also be a statement of smaller demand for the McDonald’s film.
It may have seemed like a good idea to Hollywood to launch a film demonizing a businessman right after a deeply controversial businessman took the Oval Office, but the proof is in the pudding — or lack thereof.
To be fair, The Founder has all the makings of a good movie. Keaton, Dern, Offerman, and Lynch put in strong acting performances, and despite the film’s negative message it tells the story very well, with a fitting score and effective cinematography. The painful scenes of Kroc mistreating his wife are particularly arresting — as body language and a stray word tell the whole heartbreaking story. Even the final scene depicting Kroc’s conquest of another man’s wife is understated and subtle, a powerful lesson in cinema.
The Founder is really two movies: one about good old-fashioned American ingenuity, and another about the corrosive greed of capitalism and big business. It is truly inspiring to see Kroc, a man driven by ambition and searching for the next revolutionary business opportunity, working day and night to achieve his dream. His path from failed salesman to successful franchiser is inspiring, as is his vision for McDonald’s.
In one moving — if slightly sacrilegious — scene, Kroc describes driving through town after town, seeing two things: “a church with a cross, and a courthouse with a flag.”
“If you guys don’t want to franchise for yourselves, do it for your country,” Kroc declares to the McDonald brothers, laying out his vision. “It could be said that that beautiful building flanked by those arches — McDonald’s can be the new American church. Crosses. Flags. Arches.”
And so it proved. Few things are as American as McDonald’s, and most in the audience seemed to come to this movie expecting to be inspired by the story of its creation. They were sorely disappointed by the common liberal narrative that all business and profit is evil and corrosive.
But The Founder‘s comparative failure at the box office hints toward a better future. Perhaps in Trump’s America, audiences can see through the anti-business narrative, understanding that the only way a company can make a profit in a truly free market is by serving the people. McDonald’s has fed billions across the world, and deserves to be celebrated — even if Ray Kroc had a few moral failings.
Americans are tired of hearing how their system — which has produced unprecedented and unimaginable prosperity in the United States and across the world — is somehow irredeemably racist, sexist, bigoted, evil, and unfair. Perhaps, in Trump’s America, Hollywood can realize that a movie which praises business innovation, rather than demonizing it, is what people really want to see.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.