THE BEANIE BUBBLE
2023, R, 110 mins
Zach Galifianakis as Ty / Elizabeth Banks as Robbie / Sarah Snook as Sheila / Geraldine Viswanathan as Maya / Tracey Bonner as Rose / Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Jeremy / Hari Dhillon as Arjun Kumar / Ajay Friese as Deshad / Sweta Keswani as Neeti Kumar / Kurt Yaeger as BillyDirected by Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash / Written by Gore, based on the book by Zac Bissonnette
There is something about the 2023 film year that has featured a shocking number of period-specific films that have been about consumer products, in one form or another.
The best of the bunch would easily be Ben Affleck's AIR, which dealt with a then struggling Nike desperately trying to nab one of the biggest rookie clients of all time and build a shoe brand around him. The second best was the recently released BLACKBERRY, which honed in on the spectacular rise and dreadful fall of an early pioneer of smart phone tech. Third on the ranking would be TETRIS, which chronicled a politically heavy story of multiple businesses from around the world all vying to nab a modest Russian-made video game and make it a phenomenon. If there is a creative through line in all of them, it would be that they take audiences on roller coaster rides through history and the wheeling and dealing of various companies that are trying to make a name for themselves...even if it means some using ethically questionable methods.
THE BEANIE BUBBLE continues this year's trend by focusing on the Beanie Baby fad of the 1990s, which saw these plush toys becoming such juggernaut successes that an inevitable crash seemed like a foregone conclusion. Created by American businessman H. Ty Warner (who, in turn, founded Ty Inc.), the Beanie Babies' claim to fame was that they weren't just any other stuffed animal toy. They were filled with beans versus conventional stuffing, not to mention that they were understuffed to make them vastly more flexible. Created in 1993, the Beanie Babies became not only a gigantic business success, but a cultural phenomenon. Ty Inc. became the first company to use the Internet (then in its infancy) to create a website to drive consumer traffic, and at the toyline's height, collectors (many being adults) would buy and flip Beanies for ten times their retail price (at their zenith of popularity, Beanies made up over 10 per cent of eBay's sales). Much akin to the aforementioned BlackBerry, Beanie Babies would later crash and burn, which would lead to the toy amassing and selling in discount bins later in the decade.
Directed by Kristin Gore (daughter of former Vice President Al) and Damian Kulash and based on the 2015 book The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonnette, THE BEANIE BUBBLE does a good job of capturing this toy and its parent company embracing innovation and an untapped market drive online to be true pioneers. What's most interesting, though, about the film is that it's not solely a business biopic about Ty Warner himself, but rather about three specific women in his life that all contributed - in their own unique ways - to the flourishing success of the Beanie Babies craze, but all became disgruntled and betrayed when their efforts weren't rewarded enough. It's an intriguing POV shift as far as these types of films go, which gives this story a refreshing feminist perspective in the evolving power dynamics between men and women in the workforce in the era in question. THE BEANIE BUBBLE also takes unorthodox liberties with straightforward storytelling by employing a fractured and non-linear approach that sometimes works and sometimes becomes distractingly confusing to piece together for viewers. But when the film does work, it's largely because of the stories of these three women from different walks of life that became embroiled in this toyline and its head honcho, the latter of whom was not the easiest man to work with.
THE BEANIE BUBBLE opens on a great visual: A semi-truck has an accident on a freeway that leads to what looks like thousands of plush dolls exploding from the wreckage. Almost every nearby onlooker rushes towards the free and clear Beanie Babies like a horde of ravenous zombies. "We didn't set out to make America Lose its mind...but that's what happens," comments one of Ty's close business partners in Robbie (Elizabeth Banks). In one of the film's many, many flashbacks, Robbie is introduced as an apartment neighbor of Ty's (Zach Galifianakis) in the early 80s, and after a few chance encounters, the pair become close friends and inevitable business partners that would form the basic building blocks of Ty Inc. in 1986. Ty introduces Robbie to his creation that he hopes will be the next big thing in the toy industry in an early Beanie Baby prototype, which enchants Robbie to no end. The two would also have romantic entanglements on top of their business ties, and everything reached a crescendo when Beanie Babies launched and took off (like...really took off) in 1993. Everything looked immeasurably bright for Ty and Robbie.
Or...at least she thought so.
Ty would later brush her aside and find himself in a relationship with Sheila (the great Sarah Snook), a single mom that's at first hesitant to become embroiled in Ty's crazy business world, but she finds herself hopelessly charmed and won over by his charms. Then there is another woman caught up in Ty's day-to-day business operations in Maya (Geraldine Viswananthan), who's a pre-med student with a very bright future of her own who finds herself becoming less compelled to please her parents and becoming a doctor as she is fascinated by Ty and his Beanie Baby empire. She's arguably one of the most influential and important players behind the scenes at Ty Inc. for the way she (more than anyone at the company, Ty included) could see what a huge impact the Internet was about to have on the world in the 90s. She had the ingenious and then unheard of idea to launch a Ty Inc. website to sell their product. Not only was this a business first, but Maya also used street-smart guerrilla advertising tactics at trade shows and fairs by telling customers looking for sold-out Beanie Babies that they were limited editions and the demand outstripped the supply. This drove the collector's market into a frenzy, but like all bubbles and fads...yeah...nothing successful ever lasts forever.
THE BEANIE BUBBLE is quite engaging in its first half in the ways it explores all of these people in question that are trying to fan the flame of Beanie Babies and build them into what would become a consumer/toy smash. And Ty himself - in the early stages of the film - comes off as a weirdly eccentric, but congenial chap that understood the fundamentals of what made his toy better and more creative than other similar ones on toy shelves. That, and he appeared to have a loyal and supportive team behind him that worked hard to secure early product victories. However, as the film soon starts to shift towards the prerogatives of Robbie, Maya, and Sheila (and segues in and out of focus depicting their respective takes on working with TY through the years), then it becomes clear that Ty seems driven by his own self-gain and interests. He becomes more self-aggrandizing and impossible to deal with and finds himself incapable of allowing any of these women to have a reasonable piece of his unfathomably wealthy corporate pie. Robbie has been with Ty the longest, but sees the writing on the wall and feels like she's being slowly squeezed out of the company. Sheila begins to see Ty as being pretty unfit on the job and home front. I felt the worst for Maya, who clearly worked miracles for the company and was instrumental in building up the Beanie Baby craze online, but Ty rewards her with a measly increase in her borderline minimum wage and promotes a clueless man to a second-in-command position.
It's here where THE BEANIE BUBBLE works at its best. The meteoric success (and the financial gain) of the toy starts to taint Ty and fosters his delusions of grandeur, which all makes him pretty insufferable. Beyond that, the film serves as a cautionary parable about how wealth and fame can pollute higher ups and make them too paranoid to share their fortunes with those below them that did all the grunt work. Galifianakis has perhaps never been given such a juicy role in his career before like Ty, and his performance has to go down this slippery and thorny slope of making this entrepreneur kind of inviting and innocent-minded while later evoking his toxic workplace personality that's fuelled by his growing narcissism and neurotic pettiness. Matching him is the superb trifecta of Snook, Viswananthan and Banks, all of whom have to play characters that see themselves taking in the massive euphoric highs of working with Ty and then face crushing disappointment. Banks has a fiery energy throughout that's kind of infectious. Snook is more compellingly soft spoken and understated in what could have been a grieving wife on autopilot role. Viswanathan is plays Maya with a spunky and determined go-getter attitude that's perhaps the smartest person in the room at Ty Inc., but depressingly never gets the credit she so thoroughly deserves.
Perhaps what hurts THE BEANIE BUBBLE is that it comes on the heels of recent - and overall, better - fact-based corporate origin biopic pictures that tackled various other consumer products that hit big in the 80s and 90s. The film certainly generates early momentum that easily captured my interest (having such vivid memories of living through the Beanie Babies mania as a young adult in the 90s certainly helped too), and Gore and Kulash do what they can to provide for a sleek and stylish portal into the early heyday of this toy from its humblest beginnings to its largest successes and then finally to soul sucking failures. The fractured time chronology of the story - although building to some unexpectedly potent payoffs - ultimately becomes a bit too chaotic, scrambled, and incoherent for its own good; instead of being organically fluid, too much of the film feels scattershot and undisciplined in the editorial choices. And, yeah, THE BEANIE BUBBLE pales in comparison to the greatness of AIR and the approaching greatness of BLACKBERRY. Having said that, I admired the ensemble performances here, the choice to focus on the woman behind the scenes versus the men in absolute power, and the overall story of how an unassuming looking doll line started so humbly and became a billion dollar empire and cultural icon. What happened with the Beanie Babies is not wholly unique, though. As one character calmly reflects in her voiceover at one point, "There will always be another fad."