'McMillion$': TV Review | Sundance 2020

A great story, not always well told.
2/3/2020

HBO's six-part documentary tells the wild and wacky story of the rigging of the McDonald's Monopoly game in the 1990s, complete with a cast of unbelievable real-life characters.

If you're of a certain age and lack a certain sort of culinary discretion, chances are good that you remember the experience of playing McDonald's Monopoly game in the 1990s, the thrill of winning the periodic free fries or drinks, mixed with the excitement of getting exactly one piece away from a bigger prize. You devoured those free fries with pleasure and accepted those near wins in the spirit of the game.

But what if McDonald's Monopoly wasn't merely a game with long odds? What if it was rigged from top-to-bottom in a complicated scheme that involved the mob and apparently much of the state of Florida and could only be unraveled by a team of FBI agents very nearly recreating the plot of Argo?

Welcome to James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte's McMillion$, a six-part documentary series that screened its first half at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of an HBO premiere on Monday. Though it's not especially good as a piece of formal filmmaking through its first three hours, McMillion$ tells a quirky and frequently hilarious tale filled with enough twists and turns that you'll swear it came from the keyboard of a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard.

The story told here focuses primarily on the Jacksonville office of the FBI, described as a "Sleepy Hollow retirement office," accustomed to sniffing out cases involving health care fraud, bank fraud and other instances of white-collar crime. Our hero is Doug Mathew, a wet-behind-the-ears special agent whose ennui with the office's standard cases leads him to begin poking into vague insinuations about fraud in the McDonald's monopoly game.

It's relatively easy, after a little research, for Mathews and his team of less instantly convinced FBI agents to do a little digging and see that even without any shared last names, there are connections between a lot of the instant winners. But ascertaining that a fix was in isn't the same as understanding the logistics of how the game worked, how high up the fix went and how it was executed.

As the lore goes, the reason why you may not know about this case is because the first indictments happened just days before 9/11, but the reality may be something more related to the blind optimism of the American Dream. If there's anything more quintessentially hopeful or American than the dogged belief that fast-food purchasing can lead directly to expanded wealth, I don't know what it is.

To get the negatives out of the way, Hernandez and Lazarte are hampered by a limited amount of footage from what came to be called "Operation Final Answer." When they actually have vintage interviews with winners and commercials from the period, McMillion$ works very well, and the directors are aided by the fact that part of the sting operation involved the agents going undercover as a commercial crew, shooting footage for future trials (and documentaries).

But the decision to round out the documentary with lifeless elevator Muzak re-enactments — they play in the background and their purpose is, as best I can tell, to be unnoticeable — was a bad one. This is such a fun and lively story that I'm unable to fathom how nobody had an approach to those footage gaps that wasn't more inspired than, "Overlit shots of faceless people walking down hallways and sitting down in conference rooms" as a re-enactment approach. There's one re-enactment shot that features Mathews raising his arms in celebration at being allowed to advance a crazy scheme that I remember because it's literally the only second in the three episodes I've seen in which the re-enactments added anything. Death to bland re-enactments, says I.

There's a great story here. Tell it better! Or at least don't tell it worse.

Wanting to have any re-enactments at all is a sign of unnecessary insecurity, because with some of the featured talking heads here, McMillion$ might not have needed them anyway.

You might not want to have him as a co-worker — I suspect he'd be exhausting — but Doug Mathews is a spectacular documentary character. His energy is boundless, his self-reflection bountiful and the ability to cut between Mathews' manic memories and the bemused recollections of some of his FBI co-workers is the stuff a filmmaker must dream of. The dynamic between Mathews, willing to do absolutely anything to amuse himself (and possibly get the bad guys), and reluctant-but-willing co-workers carries the documentary until later episodes introduce some of the wacky figures involved in the scam or related to those involved in the scam — like Frank Colombo, whose brother Jerry is one of two potential candidates to be the "Uncle Jerry" masterminding the entire thing. Adding to that "truth is stranger than fiction" are talking heads like Robin Colombo and yes, all those Colombos are tied, on various levels, to the "Five Families" Colombos, which gives you a sense of where this story is going.

I love for documentaries to be their own thing and I rarely itch for narrative remakes, but McMillion$ is practically begging for somebody like an Adam McKay — he's already producing half of HBO's slate anyway — to do a scripted mini. I think the only person who could possibly play ultra-enthusiastic, easily bored FBI agent Doug Mathews is ultra-enthusiastic, easily bored FBI agent Doug Matthews, though McMillion$ executive producer Mark Wahlberg would probably get an Emmy nomination for the role.

Directors: James Lee Hernandez, Brian Lazarte
Executive producers: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Archie Gips, James Lee Hernandez, Brian Lazarte
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)