'McMillions' Review: The Great McDonald's Monopoly Con Gets A Funny, Shocking Documentary [Sundance 2020]

McDonald's made a killing with their Monopoly games – simply peel a card off a box of fries or a sweating cup of soda and you could be a winner! But there was a catch – a catch that McDonald's wasn't even aware of. While everyday ordinary people were able to win themselves free burgers, the higher prizes – fancy cars and bundles of money – had a weird way of going towards a group of interconnected people. Because someone on the inside had found a way to game the system, and pull off one a super-sized swindle. HBO's new six-part series McMillions tells this story with all the energy of a Hollywood comedy – before it starts going to darker places.

By now you probably know the story of the McDonald's Monopoly con – it was brilliantly chronicled in The Daily Beast in 2018. As the story started to go viral, one standard refrain came up over and over again: this would make a great movie. It's only a matter of time before we get the fully Hollywoodized take on this material, but for now, HBO has gotten there first with McMillions, a six-part docuseries that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

McMillions takes its time and bundles together a wide variety of individuals, many of whom seem like they came right off a quirky character assembly line. Crooks and law figures alike hog the spotlight here – most notably FBI Agent Doug Matthews, who behaves like a kid on a sugar high. He's charmingly goofy and unable to sit still for more than a second, his twangy accent completing the package. He's about one step away from being a Tim Robinson character from I Think You Should Leave.

While working at the sleep Jacksonville, Florida branch of the FBI, Matthews longs for action. He wants a big case to cure his boredom. And sure enough, one drops into his lap: the feds get a tip that the McDonald's Monopoly game is rigged, and someone is pocketing the bigger prizes. Matthews and his fellow agents spring into action almost immediately, with Matthews leading the charge and getting frustrated when his fellow feds take their time.

The case takes the FBI inside McDonald's, and the agents are quick to decern that the Golden Arches aren't the one scamming their own game. In fact, McDonald's has almost nothing to do with the Monopoly games – they just reap the rewards. Starting in 1987, the fast-food empire teamed with Simon Marketing Ltd. to pull the game off, and it was Simon Marketing that handled the pieces – and prizes. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that someone within Simon Marketing is to blame here, but McMillions doesn't rush to that conclusion. Instead, it lets its saga unfold across multiple episodes – with each episode introducing us to a new player.

There's McDonald's corporate employee Amy Murray, who teams with the FBI to put together a bogus documentary crew used to get up close and personal with suspects. Those cameras end up pointed at "winner" Buddy Fisher, who can't stop sweating during his interview and clearly has something to hide. And yes, there are even mob figures, like Gennaro "Jerry" Colombo.  But he's not the only Jerry in the story – there's also the ringleader of it all, a man they call Uncle Jerry. Uncle Jerry is Jerome Jacobson, an ex-cop who worked for Simon Marketing. He remains a mysterious figure in the first episodes of the series – looming in the shadows, his Uncle Jerry nickname adding an extra level of mischievousness.

McMillions starts off as a farce – a film that's asking, "Can you believe all this crazy crap?" But as the story rolls on, a surprising amount of empathy creeps in. The series, written and directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, takes the time to sit down with some of the people on the inside of the scam, and reveals that many of them were up against a rock and a hard place. The story of Gloria Brown, a single mom who got swept up into the whole thing, is particularly heartbreaking to watch – Uncle Jerry had an entire empire of stooges at his disposal to pull off his scam, and he hurt more of them than helped.

It's the empathy that makes McMillions resonate. The filmmakers resort to the usual tricks of the trade: slow-motion dramatic recreations, where the actors playing the real people are always a little out of focus; talking heads; archival footage. It's not the most ground-breaking of docs, but it's ultimately so fascinating, so funny, and so perturbing, that it grabs you like the smell of McDonald's fries fresh from the firer. One sniff, one taste, and you're hooked.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10McMillions debuts on HBO February 3.