The year of the “brand” movie continues, and following the different triumphs of films such as Air, BlackBerry, Flamin’ Hot, and Tetris, we now have The Beanie Bubble. Unlike some previous films, Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash’s feature directorial debut is a considerably more scathing take on the Beanie Baby frenzy of the 1990s.
The Beanie Bubble is neither a love letter to the adorable plush toys nor a sugar-coated biography of its self-proclaimed creator Ty Warner. Instead, the film focuses on the three most influential women in Warner’s life and how he exploited them, both personally and professionally, to achieve the success he so desperately desired.
The film begins with a disclaimer that says, “Some parts of the truth you can’t just make up.” The rest, we did,” before launching into its epic opening credits scene, which features a semi-truck full of Beanie Babies collapsing in slow motion, while a swarm of men, women, and children rush out of their automobiles to grab as many of the plush toys as they can. It’s a rather humorous start that teases that the film might not be your typical biopic.
The film quickly settles down and alternates between two storylines: one set in the early 1980s in which Robbie (Elizabeth Banks) forms a close friendship with Warner (Zach Galifianakis), which leads to the creation of the Ty toy company, and another set in the 1990s in which Warner begins a romantic relationship with Shelia (Sarah Snook), a single mother who is won over by the businessman’s quirky charm. Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan), an eager college student who accepts a minimum-wage job at Warner’s company to help pay for her tuition, is also introduced.
Despite his animated and even playful demeanor, we quickly discover that Warner is, to put it mildly, a jerk. He consistently dismisses Robbie and Maya while also taking advantage of Shelia and her daughters in order to become a billionaire. As the film progresses, we see how the Beanie Baby craze impacts our four main characters, both financially and psychologically, with the overhanging possibility that the financial bubble they’re in will burst at any moment.
As Warner, Galifianakis is a fantastic fit. While he rose to fame as a hilarious manchild in films like The Hangover and Due Date, he plays an unscrupulous businessman with a penchant for deception in The Beanie Bubble. Even when he’s flirting with Shelia or lamenting the death of his father with Robbie, Galifianakis’ portrayal makes it clear that there’s something odd about Warner. The character is purposefully irritating, to the point where it becomes tiresome as the film nears its conclusion.
As a result, the three leading ladies anchor The Beanie Bubble and, ultimately, make it as enjoyable as it is. Banks’ Robbie is similar to many of the characters she’s played previously, but she’s just so excellent at the job, balancing Galifianakis’ joyful energy with something far more sympathetic and genuine. The same is true of Viswanathan’s Maya. She makes her character easy to identify with and care for.
Viswanathan has the innate charisma that she brought to many of her previous performances, but her character is written in a generic manner. There are several scenes that attempt to delve into her character’s family life, but as the credits roll, such scenes feel worthless and like afterthoughts.
Snook makes the most of Shelia, who, unlike Banks and Viswanathan, is acting completely against type. She’s not some business-savvy idealist like Shiv Roy, but rather a mom who’s had a poor love life and is now totally focused on doing what’s right for her girls. That is until Warner enters the picture.
Banks, Snook, and Viswanathan all have great chemistry with Galifianakis and are ultimately responsible for keeping the film from being completely forgettable. While their characters are underdeveloped, their performances guarantee that we can still feel for and root for them.
Many films have found success by delivering their stories out of order (for example, this weekend’s Oppenheimer), but the format here feels redundant, monotonous, and without any sense of concentration. It’s understandable that the filmmakers wanted to keep Banks’ persona prominent throughout the film, but it also feels kind of pointless to recount the stories of the toy company’s creation and the beginning of the Beanie Baby mania at the same time.
The film begins proudly announcing that, no matter how outrageous the genuine story is, some of it is entirely made up. Even the fictionalized elements of the film are uninspiring. It’s not that The Beanie Bubble isn’t amusing or well-made. Gore and Kulash are able to keep the film moving at a satisfying pace, and despite the repeated pattern, it doesn’t drag on too long. At the same time, it lacks the distinguishing vitality that previous comparable films such as Flamin’ Hot and Air have been able to provide.
Warner’s interactions with Shelia, Robbie, and Maya are intriguing to observe, as are the brief instances when the film decides to delve into their personal lives beyond the Ty headquarters, but for the most part, The Beanie Bubble appears perfectly content to keep things on the surface.
Even with its flaws, The Beanie Bubble is a fun way to pass the time. All four protagonists remain joyously dedicated to their roles and deliver the kind of intensity that the screenplay lacks, but the screenplay never really justifies why this narrative needed to be presented in this way.