Pop culture currently has an insatiable thirst for crooks and schemers, eccentrics jostling for tables where they are not supposed to sit, using means that play hopscotch back and forth across the legal line. . And while we may have stuffed ourselves with things like ‘Tiger King’, ‘Inventing Anna’, ‘Bad Vegan’ and more (I personally need a year off from anything involving the phrase “wire transfer”), you’ll want to save room for the sweet little treat that is “The Pez Outlaw”.
As the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival’s opening night pick, Amy Bandlien and Bryan Storkel’s low-stakes, high-personality documentary charmer effortlessly satisfies his sweet tooth for the scheme — and without the bloat or the bad aftertaste of his brothers.
“The Pez Outlaw” introduces viewers to Steve Glew, a seemingly unassuming horse breeder from small town Michigan who hides an incredible story beneath his long white beard: Throughout the 90s, Glew earned hundreds of thousands dollars as a desperado Pez distributor, smuggling rare candy case bags over the Atlantic and through customs loopholes – much to the chagrin of Pez’s U.S. headquarters.
Looking more like a garden gnome than an international smuggling genius, Glew is exactly the kind of subject documentarians dream of uncovering – even before he begins his Pezpionage career. Rehashing his story with warm, wacky enthusiasm — so much so that he plays his younger self in the doc’s quick reenactments — Glew explains how he got his start as an irritant in the promotions department. You see, years before, he set his compulsive mind towards hoarding cereal box giveaways and selling his wares at collectors’ conventions. You know how offers now say one per customer? Those fine print was Glew’s handiwork, he proudly proclaims in one of his many gripping talking head interviews – matched only by his significant other Kathy, livening up the exhausted but supportive woman trope with a flawless delivery of fun cartoon.
The Glews – along with the rest of the quirky players from the corporate and collector sides of the saga – are charming storytellers, with a delightful story to tell. Steve’s Pez-smuggling scheme turns out to be a sort of Willy Wonka spy game with his own nefarious Slugworth-like enemy: America’s big Pez boss, who is plotting a vendetta against Glew. There’s a brutal message hidden in the story of the small-town smuggler about how the wealthy, corporate world will decimate anyone who dares to play their game or earn a penny they don’t control – but “The Pez Outlaw” doesn’t get weighed down by this or anything for that matter.
It’s probably for the best. The lightness and sweet buzz of the doc — especially compared to its often overworked and overlong counterparts — is a refreshing change of pace. After all, this is, as a rival Pez collector put it early on, “a movie about a loser” with modest stakes at best. It’s a story where people in front of walls covered in children’s toys talk sternly about “the Pez community” and speak in low, respectful tones about a rare (and ugly) “Bubbleman” dispenser, where a grown man lurks. in his secretive Keebler-esque treehouse of Pez memorabilia and where the company’s big bad is known as “Pezident”. The light is good for “The Pez Outlaw”, an entertainment full of energy – and which succeeds.
Glew’s story alone, skillfully told, would be quite enjoyable. Just hearing people talk about getting high-quality contraband ‘goods’ — like they’re in an episode of ‘Narcos’… but about clinky plastic candy elevators — is a hoot as is. Married directors Amy Bandlien and Bryan Storkel, however, went the extra mile to get the most out of their material.
The two really shine with their re-enactments, revealing a bonus creative visual spirit to go with the now-awaited modern doc polish. Like “The Imposter” with a lighter tone, the talking head interviews often blend deftly into the dramatized version of reality; the big red rejection stamp from the CEO of Pez, for example, comically repeats Glew’s comment, “Rejected” becoming “That’s stupid” and other variations of “bad”. The directing duo also pay a hilarious homage to all genres and films mixed together in Glew’s weirdly cinematic candy concoction – a whimsical little pop of Willy Wonka color when he first steps inside a factory. Pez, a little black and white spy while searching for a lead on how to find the best ‘product’. Even Glew’s obsession with Tom Clancy makes an appearance, with our lead man literally escaping from a dreary shift to his day job thanks to a brief “Rainbow Six”-like raid sequence. These inspired moments provide just the right amount of heightened cinematic craziness to complete its very goofy saga.
Ironically, with all these great stylistic variations, it’s actually one of the film’s smallest and simplest touches that, on rare occasions, will take the humor or weirdness a bit too far: during certain interviews, on a particularly amusing revelation or a goofy line, the directors will sometimes push the camera or zoom in on their subject. There’s no need to point out our already bold story, and the storytellers don’t need it. Also, by the third act, the high sugar of “The Pez Outlaw” may fade a bit, the energy waning as Glew’s sideways hustle does the same. But in general, the doc hits an ideal bright and buzzy vibe without overdoing it, silly and sweet without causing cavities.
Speaking to the opening night crowd after Thursday’s festival screening, Amy Bandlien and Bryan Storkel noted that they are currently sourcing the film for distribution – a search that shouldn’t take long given the fun of their movie. (Netflix, I know money is suddenly tight but…come on.) I might even see it as a perfect candidate for a brilliant Hollywood adaptation. But again, the Storkels and “The Pez Outlaw” pretty much got it right the first time around.
“The Pez Outlaw”: *** of ****
“The Pez Outlaw” will screen again at the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival at 3:15 p.m. at the Oriental Theater on Friday, April 22.