‘The Founder’ describes how Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s empire

Courtesy the Weinstein Co.

“The Founder” arrives this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. This biopic about Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton, describes how he built the McDonald’s franchise into a worldwide, billion-dollar empire. Its focus on the business world comes appropriately at a time when the nation’s president is a real estate entrepreneur who prides himself on being a deal closer, and has appointed business titans like himself to key cabinet positions. Although “The Founder” was not available for screening, the following preview outlines its background and plot.

The 52-year-old son of Czech immigrants, Ray Kroc grew up in Chicago. When the film opens, he is a salesman peddling milkshake mixers out of the trunk of his car to restaurant owners across the Midwest. His first wife Ethel, played by Laura Dern, encourages these less-than-successful efforts that have followed a series of other failed businesses. After Kroc receives a call from the owners of a San Bernardino, Calif., restaurant, who order six — then eight — of his mixers, Kroc hits the jackpot.

He heads to California to meet the proprietors of the original McDonald’s, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and his brother Mac (John Carroll Lynch). He discovers a restaurant, begun in 1940, that is a self-service drive-in offering good food and fast service.

At the time, similar restaurants used waitresses on roller skates and catered to teenagers. McDonald’s was family-oriented instead. Impressed by the efficiency of the McDonald’s brothers’ “Speedee Service System,” Kroc latches onto a plan to expand the business through franchises. For him, its Golden Arches sign made this simple establishment potentially as powerful an American symbol as a church’s cross or a courthouse’s flag. Through Kroc and McDonald’s development as a Henry Ford–like assembly line, McDonald’s changed the food industry.

“The Founder” frames the business world Kroc operates in through its franchise laws, handshake agreements, and contract negotiations. As well as being a talented entrepreneur, Kroc was ruthless and ambitious. He talked the McDonald’s brothers into joining forces with him, abandoning their emphasis on quality and buying real estate for developing franchises instead. Before they realize it, Kroc has elbowed them out of the business, stolen their name, and taken over. They never recovered from the backroom deals and corporate greed that were Kroc’s hallmarks.

Director John Lee Hancock, known for biopics like “Saving Mr. Banks” (about Walt Disney), incorporates documentary footage and old photographs to enhance the story. Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”) wrote the script. Critics have praised Michael Keaton’s performance, but given mixed reviews to the film.

Bob Marley benefit

On Saturday, April 1, the Film Center joins Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s radio station, WYOB, in a special benefit screening of the documentary “Marley” in honor of musician Jimmy Cliff’s birthday. A reception precedes the film, with Jamaican food by Ackee Tree Market.