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REVIEW – “The Beanie Bubble”: A Middling Phenom, Even Before it Bursts

Elizabeth Banks and Zach Galifianakis in “The Beanie Bubble,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

In what appears to be a growing trend this cinematic year, true stories made wildly outlandish and often humorous about specific pop culture benchmarks have been all the rage (i.e., Air, Blackberry, Tetris). It was only inevitable one would land as a slight dud, oddly enough in the same hands who handled the latter. Apple strikes mild lightning for a second time with an outrageous affair in niche consumerism. The Beanie Bubble makes rampant cause to celebrate the passing fad of “beanie babies,” the adorable plush toys that built a cult following before their monetary value, and that of its figurehead, cratered underneath childish misbehavior. And rather a lot of it, to where it gets a little worn. Far faster the gimmick ever did. 

Stretched across 16 years, three lead characters lead three different perspectives of the same slow rise and nosedive fall. They each once worked with the toy company Ty, Inc, and under the shoes of its leader Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis), all but one maintained a romantic infatuation. First was auto mechanic Robbie Jones (Elizabeth Banks), his initial business partner bringing the early product line of large-size animal toys into first popularity. Second, Sheila Harper (Sarah Snook), the interior designer whose reservations about dating so soon after a bitter divorce don’t dissuade Ty from a hearty rebound. And whose daughters’ drawings spark inspiration for the cute designs guiding the beanies into a mad rave of prominence. Third is Maya Kumar (Geraldine Viswanathan), a young med school student joining the company for rent money, and whose tech savvy takes the collecting craze from regional phenom to online gamechanger. 

Their efforts alone would make for a winning success story were it not for their eccentric creative captain. Warner has an unobstructed vision for these toys, a traditional revenue stream lost to modern adaptation, or even embracing overseas markets. He makes a rather huge deal of avoiding the lucrative UK market at all costs, but instantly agrees to a McDonalds’ deal, in a show of mixed priorities. Robbie and Maya nudge their boss into glancing at least one eye on the bigger picture. His stubborn theatrics, however, only lead to a troublesome workplace and little teamwork, the pair often striking deals and tapping into new contacts, often with firm guidance, more so behind his back. They, along with Sheila, are displayed as the true titans of cutthroat industry, against the shadow of a clownish court jester whose ideas led to a pop culture crossroads. 

To the surprise of many, it’s quite rare to see Galifianakis nail an outlandish, even cartoony villain with sharp focus and rife tartness. The only time he did it better happened to be as a supporting baddie in a real animated feature (re: The Bob’s Burgers Movie). Husband-wife directing duo Damian Kulash (whose band OK Go reconvened to record a peppy end credit track), and Kristen Gore (also responsible for the script) lean in quite deliberately on that idiosyncratic aire. And in turn, writing a storm for their star to run amok, creating enough of a zany war zone to warrant that separation between fact and artistic liberty in an opening disclaimer. 

Galifianakis is once more in his pure comic zone, easily one of the year’s most captive villains. Though by the halfway mark, we see him running around in circles with the same tendencies, running out of steam before the end. The overall story arc falls to a near similar fate, belaboring its point if only to benefit its ensemble. It’s an admirable choice, leaving a good chunk of time for the characters making the biggest moves in your script. Though it still comes at the cost of janky pacing and a better grip on describing events in a random, non-linear setting. It’s all for that surprise factor, and it’s not at all a confusing state. Merely slow on the uptake, gaining momentum again in the final 30 minutes. 

Despite these inconsistencies, Gore sees no trouble in writing for empowered, no-nonsense female leads seeking their unique withdrawal plans. And on her first go, which is nothing new, but no less impressive with a non-traditional structure. All three stroll in with succinct conviction sharing the screen with a goofball like Galifianakis, getting in on the jabs before punching back twice as hard, twice as clever. Snook is a natural on motherly affection and protection, and Viswanathan a titan of Gen X snark and intuition. Though it’s Banks who effortlessly steals the show with her ever-present objective reasoning, and the comic timing to support it. Even through transitory periods of character flaws and rebuilding on her path. We could’ve used a little more of Sheila’s close friend Jeremy (a rousing Carl Clemons-Hopkins of Hacks fame), though; an occasional scene-stealer whose presence was all too fleeting. 

Gore and Kulash do make for an electric duo, channeling the different machinations of this complex, offbeat charade with an equal intensity. Gore notches on character dynamics and development, Kulash the more visible thresholds. Without it being a period drama or action film in a lavish locale, he succeeds quite promptly in making the industrial fun, tempestuous, and very Midwest. A little looser in expression than Air and the 80s, but still period-appropriate with a bright mellowness, and chaos firm in hand (an opening credits sequence showing a semi carrying Ty’s product rolling over on a busy freeway in slow motion is the most massive tell of that blend. The insanest thing that could happen in this film, but still appears cozy and jovial. 

Such randomness would thrive much better in a “corporate biopic” like this, if the base story were far more consistent with itself. The Beanie Bubble is not allergic to a desire to entertain with its crackpot attitude toward a niche product that managed to briefly capture the public’s attention. The fad lasted three years, depreciating in a flash. The dramatization feels almost as long, stuck in a retread before eventually honing its focus in just the right place to save its remaining value. Galifianakis and Banks possess the right amount of humorous knack and business savvy to maximize that potential, while Gore and Kulash plant them in a rowdy atmosphere worthy of a corporate conundrum but lost on how to sharpen its problem solving or navigational skills. I’d still consider another fun romp in the jungle of high business, at least until the vines of mismanagement and/or awkward direction get in the way. (C+; 3/5) 

The Beanie Bubble is currently streaming on Apple TV+ and in select theaters; rated R for language; 110 minutes.