“You’re making a movie about a loser,” states crazy Pez collector Johann Patek at the start of The Pez Outlaw, the documentary newly streaming on Netflix. “Why are you doing that?” It soon becomes quite clear why: this is another case where the truth is crazier than fiction. A small sale quickly grows into an entire international enterprise – and a fascinating episode to explore.
The Gist: Steve Glew was a factory worker in Michigan who needed to lose himself in the mechanics of Tom Clancy novels for intellectual stimulation. He soon got a taste of action and intrigue in his own right by venturing into Soviet-era Eastern Europe in search of a mysterious Pez factory that manufactured countless models not available in America. Glew manages to smuggle them back stateside and turn a tidy profit among Pez collectors, who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a unique dispenser.
Glew’s circumvention of the Pez USA market catches the attention of “The Pezident” Scott McWhinnie, who oversees what becomes available stateside with an iron fist. It’s possible that McWhinnie sent “spies” into the collector market to try and disrupt Glew’s lucrative resale business. The attempts to squash him turn Glew into the self-styled “Pez Outlaw,” who only becomes more brazen in his attempts to needle and thwart his archnemesis. But in time, Glew must learn a tough lesson – bet against corporate America all you want, but the house always wins in time.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Glew’s antics of outsmarting companies through loopholes most closely resembles how Adam Sandler’s character tries to use pudding cups to collect airline miles in Punch-Drunk Love. But the documentary overall recalls the kind of clever con artistry and sophisticated operations of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. (But where Abagnale gets by on looking suave, Glew gets by on looking a bit inconspicuous and disheveled.)
Performance Worth Watching: Steve Glew is a fantastic documentary subject, in part because of just how self-awarely he spins his own mythology of the “Pez Outlaw.” He’s a great storyteller and fabulist, perhaps unsurprising for someone who can outwit authorities and businesses alike with his questionable legal maneuvers. It’s great fun to watch him morph into the main character he knows he is by collapsing hero and villain into himself.
Memorable Dialogue: “If it wasn’t for the Pez Outlaw, nobody remembers Scott McQuinnie,” opines Glew as he reflects on the adventure on which he embarked. “He’s a plot point in my story.” For anyone who thinks the victors solely write history, Glew’s story offers an interesting rejoinder.
Sex and Skin: Nothing of the sort in this family-friendly film.
Our Take: Directors Bryan and Amy Bandlien Storkel never lose sight of what’s important about their documentary: the human story. They foreground every development in Scott Glew’s character and journey, which ensures we’re invested in each turn of his illicit activity. The combination of competitiveness and craziness that led him to concoct increasingly elaborate schemes to keep the business alive is always fascinating to watch. But as they expand their purview into the world of collectors or the nature of capitalism’s self-protecting mechanisms itself, they feel like natural outgrowths of the narrative and not just gratuitously unrelated tangents.
Our Call: STREAM IT! The Pez Outlaw tells a wild yarn about a character who deserves cinematic treatment. It’s got a real sense of pacing and storytelling that will inevitably be better than the Hollywood-ized fiction film they make out of the subject’s life. If you like true crime stories that don’t make you want to batten the hatches in your home, this is the right speed for you.
Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies, and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.
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