In ‘The Beanie Bubble,’ Zach Galifianakis Shaves His Beard and Redefines Himself
Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. When a trailer popped up in June for the new Apple TV+ film The Beanie Bubble, based on the rise and fall of Beanie Babies in the 1990s, viewers’ principal takeaway was, “What the hell — where’s Zach Galifianakis’ facial hair?”
Decider succinctly summed up the online reaction with the headline “Zach Galifianakis Shaved His Trademark Beard for ‘The Beanie Bubble’ and Honestly? It’s Creeping Us Out.” And indeed, after years of the Hangover comic sporting one of the lushest beards in showbiz, it was jarring to see him without one. I wasn’t alone in not being able to recognize him — and, like a lot of people, I assumed he was another prominent funnyman.
When actors radically change their look, it’s often for a dramatic role that requires them to thin down or bulk up. Quite frequently, the transformation can signal the performer’s desire to demonstrate just how seriously he takes the part he’s playing. But in the case of The Beanie Bubble, the rationale is a lot simpler: The man Galifianakis is playing, Beanie Babies creator and toy-company magnate Ty Warner, was clean-shaven. So out came the clippers.
That said, while The Beanie Bubble is, in part, a cheeky satire of Warner and the short-lived Beanie Babies craze, the movie does present Galifianakis in a slightly darker light than usual. To be sure, he showed off his dramatic chops on Baskets, but the character he portrays in this glib but entertaining biopic allows him to tweak his on-screen persona while giving you a man you will eventually come to loathe. Longtime fans might be thrown off by the lack of facial hair — he just never looks like our Zach — but his shorn appearance seems to free him up in a certain way. It’s been easy to take for granted the kinds of characters Galifianakis gravitates to. But in The Beanie Bubble, he pushes himself in new, rewarding directions.
Based on the book by Zac Bissonnette, the film tells Warner’s story from the perspective of three women who came into his orbit, each of them burned by the experience. Directors Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash, who’s also the frontman for OK Go, zip back and forth between the 1980s and 1990s. We meet Robbie (Elizabeth Banks), who helped Warner launch a company, Ty Inc., that would make poseable stuffed animals (a groundbreaking concept at the time); Sheila (Sarah Snook), a single mother of two young girls who fell in love with him in the 1990s; and Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan), a lowly assistant who worked for Warner, developing the company’s online presence so that it could reach millions of consumers salivating at the prospect of buying the newest Beanie Babies. At the toys’ peak, they were scooped up by people who, beyond finding them adorable, believed they were a valuable asset whose stock would keep rising. (In the 1990s, consumers would jump on this then-new site called eBay to buy retired Beanie Babies lines, knowing they’d be worth far more fairly quickly.) The Beanie gold rush made Warner a billionaire, until the bubble inevitably burst.
Not unlike Tetris, Air and BlackBerry — and, of course, the Godfather of the genre, The Social Network — The Beanie Bubble is a true-life tale that shows us the insides of a business phenomenon. The difference is that Robbie, Sheila and Maya are our guide, with Warner shown as a charming but distant and mysterious figure.
Galifianakis can be funny as Warner, who was later convicted of tax evasion, but he’s not primarily going for jokes. Those familiar with Galifianakis’ pre-movie-stardom career as a sharp alternative comic will remember that, on stage, he eschewed the chummy, schticky demeanor of most stand-ups, instead focusing on weird, even alienating, bits. That sort of provocation is not what he’s doing in The Beanie Bubble, but what the two modes have in common — and what they both share with Between Two Ferns — is Galifianakis’ ongoing fascination with insincerity. When he’d mock a guest on his fake talk show, was it an act — or, was it as phony as the strained collegiality presented on real talk shows? I don’t think Galifianakis has even been more compelling as a patently false individual as he is in The Beanie Bubble. The real trick is that, for much of the film, he almost gets you to like the weirdo he’s playing.
When Robbie and Sheila separately meet Warner, he seems like a genuine sweetheart — maybe a little childlike and awkward, but unthreatening and warm. Eventually, we’ll (and they’ll) realize this is Warner’s well-crafted routine to gain people’s trust, but what’s arresting about the performance is how little Galifianakis signals his character’s true intentions. On some level, Ty Warner (or, at least how he’s presented in this movie) believed his own ruse — he really did believe he loved these women, both of whom he ultimately seduced.
But Galifianakis never shows the seams of the man’s deep dysfunction, never lets you enjoy the character’s deception. He keeps Warner an enigma — which, of course, is the same thing he did with Alan, the wild-card oddball of The Hangover, the hit comedy that made him a household name. Alan always seemed a bit peculiar — you could never wrap your head around his strangeness — and Galifianakis didn’t worry about making him “lovable.” The strangeness was the joke, and it was a really funny joke — less so with the lame sequels — and Galifianakis holds that same tension in The Beanie Bubble. It’s a movie in which we’re meant to ask, “Who is this guy?” Galifianakis won’t give you an answer, although the women in Warner’s life are more than happy to give you an earful. Lord knows they’ve suffered enough dealing with this guy.
As a movie, The Beanie Bubble is pretty mediocre. It’s a little too slick, a little too self-satisfied and a little too formulaic in its exploration of the highs and lows of a cultural phenomenon destined to expire, wiping out massive fortunes in the process. The film blasts lots of obvious period-specific songs meant to stoke the nostalgia of anyone interested in reliving the Beanie Babies’ glory days. But what keeps The Beanie Bubble riveting is Galifianakis, and it’s not just because he doesn’t have a beard. That facial hair has for so long been his trademark, practically a warning sign that this individual is up to something. His beard can signal that the character he’s playing is a loser, an outcast, a weirdo, maybe someone a little unhinged — the beard has become our cue to laugh, understanding that, no matter how famous Galifianakis gets, he’ll never be some clean-cut, boring Hollywood star. The beard reminds us that there’s still a little mischievous oddness in him.
But without the beard? It’s confusing, almost as if he isn’t him, and that turns out to be the perfect way to play someone who isn’t quite there. With his borderline-creepy fixation on stuffed animals and his boyish pleasure in being successful, Warner is like a big kid, his unbridled enthusiasm making some wonder if he’s gay. Not that Galifianakis ever punches down or goes for the cheap gag — there’s something proudly shameless about how Warner walks through the world, desperately wanting people to love him and masterfully telling anyone what they want to hear with such elegance and sincerity that you’d swear he’s being honest. Warner is like no one you’ve met, but he knows who he is.
Often, Galifianakis portrays characters with a guilelessness who don’t quite fit with their surroundings — what makes them funny is how they keep smacking their heads against that uncomfortable reality. But in The Beanie Bubble, Warner bends reality to his will, creating a fantasy land where he’s rich and powerful and nothing is ever going to change that. (The “bubble” of the title doesn’t just refer to the financial bubble.) The self-delusion of his comical characters is, here, transformed into something slightly more sinister and alarming. Saddled with a difficult upbringing, Warner never grew up, deciding to remain a permanent child, and The Beanie Bubble chronicles all the ways that children would be ill-equipped to run a company or try to maintain a committed romantic relationship.
We’ve seen plenty of movies in which some ambitious young man takes on the world, only to have the world eventually knock him down. With his love of plastic surgery and his penchant for betraying those closest to him, always confident that his ability to sweet-talk someone will get him out of trouble, Warner is different, more pathetic, than what we normally encounter in such films. You almost can’t be mad at the guy — he’s so fatally immature, he doesn’t know better.
Like most Apple TV+ movies, The Beanie Bubble will probably barely leave a ripple on the cultural consciousness. It doesn’t help matters that most won’t even know it’s Zach Galifianakis in the ads. But while I never got over just how much he looks like John Goodman without facial hair, I felt like I was really watching Galifianakis for the first time in years. It’s become easy to assume what to expect from him because of his well-established comic persona — that anti-showbiz stance, those anxious eyes, that huge beard. For The Beanie Bubble, he shaved the beard, but it’s not some showboating thing to win Oscars. Instead, he’s just reminding viewers why he’s so good at playing misfits. You may not recognize him in this movie, but he’s never been more himself.