David Foster Wallace would be proud — and probably more than a little horrified.
In the vein of Infinite Jest’s Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar and Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, the subsidized version of 2023 may as well be known as The Year of the Product Movie.
Heralded by Barbie’s teaser trailer last December and officially commencing with BlackBerry’s February premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, moviegoers have been inundated with one feature after another centered on famous merchandise. In addition to dolls and internet-capable phones, fact-based histories of video games (Tetris), basketball shoes (Air), spicy snacks (Flamin’ Hot), and under-stuffed animals (The Beanie Bubble) have made their way to the big screen with varying degrees of critical and commercial success.
It’s a strange trend that elevates consumerism to cinematic heights, foregoing the movie-then-toy route of Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pixar, and other commodity-friendly (read: Disney-owned) franchises for a celebration of the items themselves.
Disgusting as this direct presentation feels on a basic level, various factors undercut the films’ item idolatry and keep them from becoming little more than extremely long advertisements. For starters, it helps that BlackBerry phones, Beanie Babies and Tetris are far less popular today than they were at their peaks — and unlikely to make a resurgence now that technology and lifestyle trends have rendered them nostalgic curios.
But each story also features a bossy, egomaniacal, white male character who’s prone to loud, crass communication, and it’s their presence that may explain The Year of the Product Movie. Most of these films are set in the 1980s, ’90s, and ‘00s — decades where toxic masculinity flourished in tandem with the U.S. economy, forming a double helix of greed and disregard for one’s fellow man that reached a boiling point in the mid/late-2010s. In turn, such attitudes helped inspire “enough is enough” counter efforts like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and other social equity movements whose inclusive values continue to gradually counteract the damage inflicted by generations of problematic white men.
Entertaining as it is to see these movies’ so-called “good guys” triumph and legit villains fall, there’s an overarching message in these product films that society’s current woes can in some ways be traced to the purchasing fever that surrounded these items. Yet even stronger cautionary tales stem from the Machiavellian behind-the-scenes moves that prompted these spending frenzies and the short-sightedness of individuals who’d rather go down with their ships than adapt.
Of these loudmouths, none is as abrasive as BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie. Played with blistering intensity by Glenn Howerton, Balsillie’s shout-first approach and commitment to get the job done by any means necessary are sharp contrasts to the easygoing, nerdy ways of John Carmack (Jay Baruchel), John Romero (Matt Johnson), and their Research In Motion team.
Additionally out for big tech bucks is Tetris’ British billionaire Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), a businessman whose raging temper and penchant for chewing out anyone who stands in the way of more riches makes viewers root all the more heartily for scrappy entrepreneur Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) to land the game’s console and handheld rights for Nintendo.
Similarly driven — and seemingly friendless — is David Falk (Chris Messina), Michael Jordan’s agent in Air, who delights in verbally abusing Nike marketer Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and steering his future-superstar client to a more lucrative shoe contract. Though he ultimately secures himself a nice payday, the last we see of Falk is a comeuppance coda scene where, after selling his company, he’s spotted eating alone in a restaurant.
Likewise resistant to good ideas from unlikely sources, Frito-Lay plant manager Lonny Mason (Matt Walsh) in Flamin’ Hot isn’t pleased when imaginative janitor Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) strays beyond his cleaning duties, even when the underling’s ideas could help save the company. And add The Beanie Bubble’s Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis) to the list of ungrateful bosses, one whose fiscal selfishness and petty revenge tactics when people dare defy him run counter to the cute plush critters his company produces.
While also based on a real person, Galifianakis’s portrayal of Warner is nearly as cartoonish as that of practically every man in Barbie, save for nice-guy outlier doll Allan (Michael Cera) and Ryan Piers Williams’ unnamed, Duolingo-loving husband to human protagonist Gloria (America Ferrera). The misogynistic hyper-patriarchy practiced by Mattel’s CEO (Will Ferrell) and his fellow executives — attitudes that Ken (Ryan Gosling) memorably brings back to Barbieland — may be exaggerated for comic effect, but is nevertheless critical in helping the film hit its satirical marks.
Though a few of these antagonists come around and become allies with their former adversaries, the clear message of these films is “don’t be like these assholes.” Instead, viewers are encouraged to emulate their foils: kind-hearted people devoted to the pursuit of happiness and wholesome values…who also just so happen to be good little capitalists.
Such lessons dilute the icky consumerism at the core of each feature, but even at its best, the mere existence of The Year of the Product Movie remains a troubling development.