‘The Beanie Bubble’: Hubris in Toyland


(2 stars)

What’s with the movies these past few months?

First came “Tetris,” the incredible but funny true story of the 1984 creation, in Russia, of the addictive video game and the corporate warfare over the rights to it. That was followed by “Air,” Ben Affleck’s incredible but funny true story about how Nike wooed Michael Jordan to lend his name to basketball shoes, also in 1984. “BlackBerry” came out soon after, telling the incredible but funny true story of the 2002 invention — and subsequent implosion — of one of the first smartphones.

Then just last month there was “Flamin’ Hot,” the incredible but not very funny or very true story of the 1992 invention of Frito-Lay’s Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, allegedly by a janitor at the company named Richard Montañez. (As alleged by Montañez, that is, but denied by almost everyone else.)

Now comes “The Beanie Bubble,” yet another corporate-themed docu-dramedy about the creation of some wildly popular product. In this case, that means Beanie Babies, the small stuffed animals released in 1993 by toy designer/manufacturer Ty Warner, who would become a billionaire before the collecting craze surrounding his brainchild collapsed in 1999. Warner, who is played by a preening, over-the-top Zach Galifianakis, was convicted of tax evasion in 2013.

Written and co-directed by Kristin Gore (Al’s daughter), who collaborated behind the camera with Damian Kulash Jr. and adapted her convoluted screenplay from a nonfiction book by Zac Bissonnette, the film opens with a title-card disclaimer: “There are parts of the truth you just can’t make up. The rest, we did.” Those made-up parts include characters played by Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook and Geraldine Viswanathan, all of whom portray fictionalized women screwed over one way or another by Warner.

From the archive: The great Beanie Baby brouhaha

So “The Beanie Bubble” is less a tale of a corporate genius than a story, three times over, of a woman scorned: Banks plays Ty’s friend, co-founder and business partner, who is eventually forced out in a power grab; Snook is his much-exploited girlfriend, a single mother of two; and Viswanathan is a young tech whiz who came to Ty’s company as a teenager, helping catapult it to success before quitting in disgust after being taken for granted.

That subtext is actually the most interesting aspect of the film, but it doesn’t come into sharp focus until the plot — which starts in 1983 and then repeatedly jumps forward and backward between that year and the late 1990s — is nearly resolved. There is so much non-chronological storytelling, you’d think this was “Oppenheimer.” But Gore is no Christopher Nolan, and Ty — a vain, arrogant and eccentric jerk who had multiple facelifts and appears to have dyed his hair with shoe polish — is no theoretical physicist.

The power of the story, such as it is, is not enhanced by the nonlinear narrative structure. In fact, it makes it needlessly confusing.

The three fine actresses, on the other hand, anchor “The Beanie Bubble.” If they don’t give it gravitas, exactly, they help keep it from floating away on a puff of air. There’s a silliness to the entire endeavor; in hindsight, it’s hard to believe so many people went so gaga for these silly toys.

But then again, those other four movies — all about various consumerist fads and obsessions, some more enduring than others — serve as reminders: Truthiness is often stranger, and sometimes stupider, than fiction.

R. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic; also available on Apple TV Plus. Contains strong language. 110 minutes.



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