With his bushy beard and baggy hat, Steve Glew resembles your garden-variety American goofball — a “magical troll” or just some “hillbilly from Michigan” as people call him. But Glew understands when you look disheveled and crazy, everyone underestimates your aptitude. No one learned that the harder way than Scott McWhinnie, the former president of America’s Pez division. The Pez Outlaw is the story of how Glew, McWhinnie and their respective lieutenants tussled in an epic, decade-long battle filled with enterprising ideas, trademark loopholes and international larceny that brought its toes to the line of legality … and often wriggled just over it.
This dependably daffy documentary, which hits VOD on Friday, is a directorial effort from Bryan Storkel and Amy Bandlien Storkel, perhaps best known for producing the 2018 Netflix sensation The Legend of Cocaine Island. That overrated documentary played as if Friday Night Lights’ Buddy Garrity were the lead character of Breaking Bad, a premise at which the filmmakers seemed to arrive and then stop. Thankfully, Outlaw is an outright and outrageous blast, with shrewd pacing, interviews that offer both intriguing insights and playful depth, and vibrant reenactments of Glew’s past exploits.
Glew plays himself in these dramatizations of his days and deeds as the Pez Outlaw — able to acquire Pez dispensers available only in Europe and sell them for a mint on the collectors’ circuit in the United States. (While the explanation of how Glew threads this needle is one of the film’s more amusing moments, the question of how Pez USA didn’t simply drown him in temporary injunctions to just wait him out goes unaddressed.) At the height of his operation, Steve and his wife, Kathy, quit their jobs, build a home, put their daughter through college and even hired full-time employees to assist with their empire. As Kathy says: “He’s a schemer and a plotter and a dreamer … he’s a good guy, but you’ve gotta look for it.” (As a nice grace note, The Pez Outlaw leaves enough room for the endearing story of their enduring love.)
But then Glew ran afoul of McWhinnie (the “Pezident,” as he preferred to be known), who made it his personal mission to stamp out Glew’s smuggling operation. Across a decade of victories and setbacks, Glew continues to rise like a puttering phoenix — much to McWhinnie’s chagrin and to the delight of audiences that dive into this charming documentary about a colorful niche.
While the Storkels understand that their story has an inherent flight of fancy, they give it dimension in unexpected ways. By casting Glew as himself in the reenactments, they play up the persona of the Pez Outlaw as his coping mechanism for mental disorders that, while far from debilitating, certainly destabilized long periods of Glew’s life. And while not knowing whom to trust regarding accusations of corporate spies sicced on Glew by McWhinnie, Glew’s paranoia that people were following him doesn’t constitute any danger posed to himself. It only ever reflects the creative drive that motivated his one-time multimillion-dollar plan (and, of course, Glew’s penchant for the adventure in Tom Clancy novels).
The Pez Outlaw also features engaging subplots that concern characters in the Pez collector community (including an Austrian raconteur of whom everyone is afraid to speak on the record and who denies the Storkels entry into his treasured backyard Pez playhouse). An unexpected undercurrent is an international intersection of Pez and politics. The veracity of whether Glew had an inside man at the completely separate Pez International business is beside the point. What might have been illegal in eastern Europe is decidedly inconsequential next to the considerable problems its people faced in geopolitical conflict, and the Storkels are able to elicit that extra layer of light no-harm, no-foul storytelling from subjects at the fringe of Glew’s story.
The film also depicts the shame of American corporate embarrassment brought to bear on an industrious individual who was perhaps not technically breaking any laws. What it gets exactly right, though: If America truly does remain that shining city on a hill to the world at large, the light between oceans is blinding-neon pink to symbolize only the kitschiest opportunity.