Composer Damian Kulash and late night scriptwriter Kristin Gore make their directorial debut with Apple TV's biographical dramedy THE BEANIE BUBBLE. This is something you may remember from the 1990s, when for a brief moment adult humans thought that buying and flipping children's soft toys would make them millionaires.
This was all thanks to the perfect combination of three factors. First the toymaker's decision NOT to sell on mass to big retailers like Toys'R'Us but one to small stores, creating hype by word of mouth rather than mass marketing. Second, the toymaker's decision to retire individual models, creating scarcity. Thirdly, the arrival of the internet and Ebay, allowing frenzy to build in the second-hand market. At its peak, people were jumping delivery trucks to get their hands on the toys, and when McDonalds ran a promotion giving away mini Beanie Babies with their Happy Meals, people were queuing round the block for the exclusive toys.
This all seems like marketing genius and the movie argues that it indeed was. Except that the genius wasn't the sole purview of the toymaker Ty Warner. He could design cute toys, sure, but this film argues that his billionaire success was actually the result of three women that he met at different parts of his life.
The first is Robbie, played by the always likeable Elizabeth Banks. She is a really charismatic and shrewd saleswoman who helps Ty make major sales of Beanie Babies at trade shows and sets up foreign distribution. She actually co-founds the company with him but because he used his family money, she has no actual ownership stake.
The second is Sheila, played by Succession's Sarah Snook. When she meets Ty she is an independent single mother of two smart young girls. She is swept off her feet, but while engaged resists marriage. Her contribution to the Beanie Babies story is that her kids inspire a lot of the designs as ready made beta testers.
Finally, and arguably most crucially, we have the young college student Maya (break-out star Geraldine Viswanathan) who starts off temping at the company and eventually masterminds its e-commerce strategy before any other company even knew what e-commerce was. She is the one who sets up the website and realises how important the secondary market on Ebay is, not just in driving up primary sales but also in giving them feedback on which are the popular models. She also writes all of the cutesy poems on the Beanie Baby tags.
Together these women power Ty to success but the more he gets the more selfish, narcissistic and greedy he becomes. As a result, the story of the film is pitched not as his story, but as the story of three amazing women who get used but who also have the strength to leave.
I really enjoyed this film. It's no work of art but it is well cast and cleverly constructed so that we see these women's stories unfold simultaneously, allowing for some great aha moments at the end when they finally meet in real time. Zach Galifianakis reins it in as Ty, making his character suitably sinister while still larger than life. And Viswanathan absolutely knocks it out of the park with a star-making turn as the moral heart of the film. Still, as much as the screenwriter wants this to be a feminist parable, it is Ty that had the last laugh. He remains a billionaire.
THE BEANIE BUBBLE is rated R, has a running time of 111 minutes and is streaming on Apple TV.