The Pez Outlaw


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Pez Outlaw
"It’s small, sweet and not exactly filling, but it will definitely leave you with a craving for more." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

One of the most talked-about documentaries of the year, Amy Bandlien Storkel and Bryan Storkel’s The Pez Outlaw is a masterclass in making a big story out of a small subject. Like the candy it’s concerned with, it’s small, sweet and not exactly filling, but it will definitely leave you with a craving for more.

In these days when we’re all more conscious of the damage done to the environment by disposable plastic, the idea of marketing sweets through the use of cutesy plastic dispensers would be a difficult pitch if it were new. The Pez Company still produces around 70 million of them a year, so it’s good to know that at least some of those end up in the hands of collectors, carefully stored and treasured. Whilst the cost of a new pez dispenser (with a single set of sweets) remains around £3, however, rare specimens can sell for over a thousand times that, creating a highly competitive collectors’ market which is definitely not for kids.

Back when middle aged Michigan factory worker Steve Glew first got into pez collecting, it was a side hobby. His passion, for many years, had been cereal boxes. We see some of that collection at the start of this film, as he explains how well he did out of acquiring old ones from various sources (clearly including people’s bins) and send off coupons to acquire all sorts of free gifts in large quantities. Pez dispensers, however, began to fascinate him, and his world changed when he learned, in 1990, that factories in Eastern Europe were manufacturing ones which had never been available in the US. Despite really hating unfamiliar places, he took a trip out there with the support of his son, and talked a factory owner into selling him significant quantities. Back home, he put them on the market and watched his money multiply.

“Wait a minute!” you might say. “Importing products for sale is more complicated than that.” Well yes, in theory it is. This is where Steve had an extraordinary stroke of luck, with a filing failure on the part of the Pez Company leaving a loophole wide open for him to exploit. Soon he was rich beyond his wildest dreams, buying a new house for his family. But like many an overnight success story, he was hooked on the idea of his own genius. When Pez Company boss Scott McWhinnie, aka the Pezident, stepped in to try to stop him, he prided himself on finding new ways to work around the rules, branding himself the Pez Outlaw.

Of course, Steve was picking a fight with people much more skilled than he was, and having more money than he’d ever seen before meant very little when up against the financial might of an international corporation. As the film makes clear from the start, this was a fight he was never going to win. He strives to present himself as a heroic loser, and the directors collude with this to an extent, though the various interviewees who contribute to telling his story are not all uncritical. They include pez collectors with egos at least as big as his own. Reenactments (in which Steve plays himself) are styled like scenes from a spy thriller, but there is a knowing humour about them which is not wholly indulgent.

There is no effort here to go into depth. We are respectfully left to figure some things out for ourselves. The twists and turns come thick and fast, and even though some may be obvious to viewers, it makes sense that they were not obvious to Steve. Two things elevate the film and make it more than just a ripping yarn. The first is the intriguing psychology of the pez collector world, and the detail in which it is displayed. The second is Steve’s relationship with wife Kathy, which is something that the richest people in the world might well envy. She’s aware of his naivety, and she worries about him, and she understands why people find him odd, but she has been crazy about him since the moment they met, and it’s clear that this is mutual. Towards the end, when the two are faced with an unexpected challenge, the whole tone of the film shifts, its adventurous trappings fall away and the human story comes to the fore.

A wild ride full of curious characters, The Pez Outlaw, like the sweets themselves, finds real value in what is left behind when all the rest is gone.

Reviewed on: 20 Oct 2022
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The Pez Outlaw packshot
Steve Glew spent the 1990s smuggling rare pez dispensers into the USA from Eastern Europe, making millions of dollars. It was all magical until his arch-nemesis, The Pezident decided to destroy him.

Director: Amy Bandlien Storkel, Bryan Storkel

Year: 2022

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Austria, US

Streaming on: Netflix

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