The Beanie Bubble

I don’t know what it was like where you live, but here in the middle of Pennsylvania, it was a common sight in the ‘90s to see cars with huge numbers of Beanie Babies shoved into the back window. That never made sense to me. I got that the miniature stuffed animals were a craze, although the point of traveling around with them – while they limited visibility, no less – was impossible to grasp. Then again, the very definition of a fad is something that causes obsessive behavior for a short time before flaming out. The Beanie Bubble looks at the rise and fall of Beanie Babies. While not as trenchant as recent similar films Air and Blackberry, it nevertheless provides an amusing overview of the phenomenon.

The central figure is businessman Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis), yet the story is told from the perspectives of three important women in his life. First wife Bobbie (Elizabeth Banks) is the one he builds his stuffed animal empire with. Second wife Sheila (Sarah Snook) is the one whose daughters give him the inspiration for Beanie Babies. Employee Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan) is the brains of the operation, guiding Ty away from his dumb, uninformed decisions and toward savvy choices that exponentially grow the company. She comes up with the idea to drive demand by “retiring” certain products, thereby making them collector’s items. The film depicts how these women pave the way for Beanie Babies to explode, as the not-particularly-bright Ty takes credit for everything.

The Beanie Bubble shies away from digging into the public’s perception of Beanie Babies. Writer Kristin Gore (who co-directed with Damian Kulash of the rock band OK GO) never quite captures what appealed to people so intensely. We’re told kids liked that they were soft and could be carried in a backpack. That doesn’t account for the massive sales or the adult dedication to the product.

Much better is the movie’s look at the behind-the-scenes machinations, where Maya recognizes the potential of a new-fangled thing called the internet. She later uses an online auction site called eBay to help take the craze to the next level. Even if you get no insight into why people go crazy for Beanie Babies, the movie still offers perspective on how the company capitalizes on their desire and how the rush of success creates in Ty the false sensation that he can do no wrong.

Underneath that is a reasonably engrossing tale of a dysfunctional man and the women who prop up his seeming success. Galifianakis is very good at conveying Ty’s lack of business acumen. The guy is smart enough to borrow other people’s ideas, only to flounder when left to his own devices. Banks, Snook, and Viswanathan each beautifully convey the power their characters wield over him in various ways. They choose to see the best in Ty, and when it becomes apparent he doesn’t deserve that, they turn their power against him.

The Beanie Bubble is partially a cautionary tale about ego. More than that, though, it’s a story about the perilous intersection of runaway business success and interpersonal relationships. Ty Warner greatly benefits from strategic bonds with three distinct women. Without those women, he is nothing. The lesson is learned too late for him, but just in time for them.

out of four

The Beanie Bubble is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.