Pop culture currently has an insatiable hunger for scammers and schemers, oddballs hustling their way to tables where they’re not supposed to sit, using means that play hopscotch back and forth over the legal line. And while we may have overstuffed ourselves with the likes of “Tiger King,” “Inventing Anna, “Bad Vegan” and more (I personally need a one-year hiatus from anything involving the phrase “wire transfer”) you’ll want to save some room for the sweet little treat that is “The Pez Outlaw.”
Serving as the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival’s opening night pick, Amy Bandlien and Bryan Storkel’s low-stakes, high-personality documentary charmer effortlessly sates one’s sweet tooth for schemery – and without the bloat or bad aftertaste of its brethren.
"The Pez Outlaw” introduces viewers to Steve Glew, a seemingly unassuming small-town Michigan horse farmer hiding an incredible backstory under his long white beard: Throughout the ’90s, Glew made hundreds of thousands of dollars as a Pez dispenser desperado, trafficking duffle bags of rare candy holsters over the Atlantic and through loopholes in customs – much to the chagrin of Pez's U.S. headquarters.
Looking more like a garden gnome than an international smuggling mastermind, Glew is exactly the kind of subject documentarians dream of discovering – even before he began his career in corporate Pezpionage. Rehashing his tale with warm and wacky enthusiasm – so much so he plays his younger self in the doc’s zippy reenactments – Glew explains how he got his start as a promotions department irritant. You see, years prior, he put his compulsive mind toward hoarding cereal box-top giveaways and selling his wares at collector conventions. You know how the deals now say one per customer? That fine print was Glew’s doing, he proudly proclaims in one of his many engaging talking head interviews – matched only by his significant other Kathy, enlivening the exhausted-but-supportive wife trope with perfect droll comic delivery.
The Glews – along with the rest of the quirky players on both corporate and collecting sides of the saga – are delightful storytellers, complete with a delightful story to tell. Steve's Pez smuggling gig ends up playing like some sort of Willy Wonka spy game complete with its own nefarious Slugworth-like nemesis: the Pez U.S. head honcho, who plots a vendetta against Glew's victimless and petty gambit. There’s a brutal message tucked into the small-town smuggler’s tale about how the rich and corporate world will decimate anyone who dares to play their game or make a cent they don’t control – but “The Pez Outlaw” doesn’t let itself get weighed down by that or anything much for that matter.
That’s probably for the best. The doc’s lightness and brisk sugary buzz – especially compared to its often overwrought and over-long streaming counterparts – is a refreshing change of pace. After all, this is, as one rival Pez collector says early on, “a movie about a loser” with modest stakes at most. It’s a story where people in front of walls covered in kids’ toys talk sternly about “the Pez community” and speak in hushed reverent tones about a rare (and ugly) “Bubbleman” dispenser, where a grown man hides in his secretive Keebler-esque treehouse of Pez memorabilia and where the big corporate villain is known as “the Pezident.” Light is right for “The Pez Outlaw,” going full energetic entertainment – and succeeding.
Glew’s story on its own, competently told, would be enjoyable enough. Merely hearing people talk about obtaining high-quality contraband “product” – as if 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, put in the extra effort to make the amusing most out of their material.
The two really shine with their reenactments, revealing a bonus creative visual wit to go with the now-expected modern doc polish. Like “The Imposter” with a lighter tone, the talking head interviews often cleverly blend into the dramatized version of reality; the Pez CEO’s big red rejection stamp, for instance, comically takes on Glew’s commentary, “Rejected” becoming “This is stupid” and other tossed-off variations of “bad.” The directorial duo also play hilarious homage to all the genres and movies referenced in Glew’s oddly cinematic candy crime concoction – a little splash of whimsical Willy Wonka color when he first gains access inside a Pez factory, a little black-and-white spy noir while hunting down alleys for a lead on how to find the best “product.” Even Glew’s obsession with Tom Clancy gets a cameo, our lead literally escaping from a dreary shift at his day job thanks to a brief “Rainbow Six”-like raid sequence. These inspired moments provide just the right amount of heightened cinematic kookiness to compliment its very kooky saga.
Ironically, with all those big stylistic swings, it's actually one of the film's smaller and simpler touches that, on rare occasion, will nudge the humor or quirk a little too far: During some interviews, on a particularly fun reveal or goofy line, the directors will occasionally push the camera in or zoom on their subject. It's unnecessary highlighting our already bold story and storytellers don't require. Also, by the third act, the sugar high of “The Pez Outlaw” can wear off just a little, the energy waning right as Glew’s side 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’re currently shopping the movie for distribution – a search that shouldn’t take long considering how fun their film is. (Netflix, I know money’s suddenly tight but … come on.) I could even see it as a perfect candidate for a glossy Hollywood adaptation. But then again, the Storkels and “The Pez Outlaw” pretty much got it right the first time.
"The Pez Outlaw": *** out of ****
"The Pez Outlaw" will screen again at the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival at 3:15 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre on Friday, April 22.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.