Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Karen Lunder   Directors: Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash   Screenplay: Kristin Gore   Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook, Geraldine Viswanathan, Tracey Bonner, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Madison Johnson, Delaney Quinn and Kurt Yaeger   Distributor: Apple TV+

Grade: B-

It’s the year of the product in American movies—not in terms of placement, which has always been with us and always will, but in terms of stories about the invention and marketing of actual items, be they athletic shoes (Air Jordans), video games (Tetris), electronic devices (the Blackberry), corn clips (Flamin’ Hot Cheetos) or, in this case, plush dolls (Beanie Babies).  The resultant pictures, whether they be dramas, comedies, or a combination of the two, are tales of entrepreneurialism, capitalism and commerce, celebrating success, commiserating over failure, or doing a bit of both. 

This latest true-life example of this booming genre (which, given the number of products on the market, appears to have an inexhaustible supply of subjects) is a particularly bizarre one, since the little stuffed critters became not just hugely popular toys but, in the minds of many, collectors’ items and get-rich-quick investment opportunities.  That created a bubble that, like all such phenomena, was bound to burst and turn a lot of on-paper profits into pipe dreams. 

Adapting (and, to some degree, fictionalizing) Zac Bissonnette’s 2015 book “The Great Beanie Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute,” writer-director Kristin Gore and her co-writer Damian Kulash treat this weird episode in the American toy business—not completely unique, but unusual enough—as not just a cautionary tale told as a dark (though neon-colored) comedy-drama, but one with a feminist streak.  But while bringing to the forefront three women in the life (personal and business both) of Ty Warner, the billionaire co-founder of Ty Inc., the company that made millions from the Beanie Babies and other stuffed animal toys—and even enlisting them as narrators—the movie can’t escape the fact that while it portrays him as a childish semi-buffoon and, ultimately, an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing narcissist, Warner remains the centerpiece.

Partially that’s because he’s portrayed Zac Galifianakis, who gives a take-no-prisoners performance as an man obsessively concerned with his appearance (as witnessed by his numerous face-lists) who can be oddly charming but in the end as capable of betraying even those closest to him—and responsible for much of his success—in order to feed his ego.  And he does so apparently oblivious to the damage he’s done.

The screenplay is oddly constructed, flipping repeatedly between the 1980s and 1990s after an exuberant slow-motion prologue showing motorists fighting over Beanie Babies that have spilled on a highway after a tractor-trailer crash.  We’re introduced to Warner as he sits outside an apartment complex where his estranged father has just died.  Robbie (Elizabeth Banks), who resides in the same building with her disabled husband (Kurt Yaeger), meets him in the parking lot and they strike up a conversation.  Their friendship quickly evolves and he invites her to join him in a business venture: he’s going to use his inheritance, along with some loans, to start a toy company to market a line of plush animal toys, which will be more posable than most because they’ll be understuffed.  Exhausted by her work as a mechanic, Robbie soon breaks up with Billy and becomes Ty’s girlfriend as well as business partner.  Together they make the operation a success with their extravagant appearances at conventions to sell their merchandise.

Fast forward to the nineties and the introduction of two more women.  One is Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan), who joins the company as an intern to help support her studies in med school; her skill with computers, and an uncanny sense about salesmanship, provides instrumental in the company’s rising fortunes.  That’s especially the case when Warner meets—cute, of course—Sheila (Sarah Snook), a single mother of two adorable little daughters, Ava (Madison Johnson) and Maren (Delaney Quinn).  Not only will he propose to her, but from her kids he gets the idea for Beanie Babies, which take off after Maya not only puts darling little poems on their tags, but spontaneously comes up with the idea of designating particular Babies as “special editions” that will be taken out of circulation, theoretically inflating their value.  She’s also the person who takes advantage of that innovation, the internet, and the newly-established site eBay, to encourage the escalation of what collectors will pay for the “rare” Babies.  She talks Warner, who initially suggests they sue the speculators, into going with the flow to their own benefit.  The boom is on. 

What follows is the explosion of Warner’s ego, as he takes sole credit for all the operation’s successes, alienating all three women in the process.  They turn the tables on him, each in her own way, and end caption cards inform us of the collapse of the Beanie Baby Bubble and Warner’s conviction for tax evasion.  Of course this finale is way too simplistic: Warner ultimately served no jail time, merely probation, and remains a multi-billionaire.

But on its own loose terms “The Beanie Bubble” is an amusing take on one of the wackiest examples of American dreaming gone amuck the country’s seen in recent decades.  Banks, Viswanathan and Snook are all excellent as the important women in Ty Warner’s life, but it remains the case that all of them revolved around him, and it’s Galifianakis’ ability to embody both his oddball attraction and his propensity for egocentric cruelty so well that sells the movie.  Thanks to Molly Hughes’ candy-colored production design, Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ equally extravagant costumes, and Steven Meizler’s glossy cinematography, it captures the Beanie Baby world visually as well.  Jane Rizzo’s editing uses a recurrent back-and-forth calculus to keep the timeframes clear while otherwise presenting the action smoothly, and the score by Nathan Barr, Damian Kulash, Jr. keeps bouncing along with the narrative rhythms.

The movie doesn’t stick with you, but somehow its very ephemeral quality encapsulates the phenomenon it’s all about.