dir: Greta Gerwig
It’s a testament to either the surprising quality of this flick, or the extent of my gullibility, that I actually found myself enjoying this flick despite myself. Well, not despite myself, that sounds like I went in not wanting to like it (like a lot of male critics seemed to make a point of in all their reviews).
Maybe because I’m secure enough in myself, or maybe the content of big budget flicks rarely has anything to do with my emotional state, but for whatever reasons I, as a man, enjoyed this strange movie and didn’t in any way feel like it diminished my inherent awesomeness or took anything away from me, including any of the additional 28 cents per dollar I am usually paid compared to my nearest female equivalent.
Radical, I know. If I had any misgivings about this flick it’s that with people like Noah Baumbach and the actual director, Greta Gerwig involved, it could have made for a horrible experience (for me).
Last time they collaborated, the flick was called White Noise, and it was based on a Don DeLillo novel, and it was a horrible time inflicted on everyone, at nearly three hours as well, and I’m still mad about it.
I had no idea what they were going to do here, but whatever it actually is, it worked for me.
I have already diminished Gerwig’s work here unintentionally: I’m not implying Baumbach secretly wrote or directed anything – she’s plenty talented enough to have already directed a bunch of flicks. They are partners in real life too, so there’s nothing unlikely about them being able to collaborate in the truest sense of the word – incorporating some ideas, discarding others because they might not gel properly.
I have no idea what thought process they went through putting this frankly bizarre film and cultural phenomenon together. I don’t think it was ever guaranteed that this flick was going to succeed as it has, because I don’t think even the most drug addled executives at Mattel or Warner Brothers could have imagined it was going to literally make billions of dollars.
People who I know for a fact weren’t going to cinemas even pre-Covid went to see this flick. My kid, their partner and their friends ALL went to see this flick together.
I had co-workers who went and saw the flick, barely able to articulate how much they didn’t like it or why, and yet the same chumps went and saw Oppenheimer and couldn’t shut up about what a genius Christopher Nolan must be for hours on end.
Well. Here’s not the place to bitch about Oppenheimer. That review is forthcoming.
I’m here to extol the virtues of this flick, which is about a doll that’s been around for decades, and also about a perplexing array of feminisms that conflict and collide and don’t have to agree to disagree or anything in between.
It’s a strange and confusing picaresque (fancy way of saying ‘road trip’) that involves the limitations of a fantasy world, or an idealised world to sound less judgmental that mirrors our own, which can just as easily fall prey to the manipulation of bullies and the tyranny of evil men as our own.
When Ken (Ryan Gosling) appears in the real world, and says to a corporate guy at Century City that they’ve clearly not doing patriarchy stuff very well, and the guy says “yeah we are, we’re just better at hiding it” I did not laugh, as was the intention. It’s a funny line.
I scowled like I was Simone De Beauvoir. I scowled like one of the Suffragettes would have. I scowled, and thought, “yeah, you fuckers, you think you’re the bee’s knees, you’ve got it all sown up.”
Control everything, and then still bitch about other people wanting equality of access to power. I tell you, contemporary life is so contradictory.
A nasty teenaged character loudly proclaims to her face that Barbie is a fascist.
“A Fascist?” she sobs. “I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce…”
What is this flick, really? Mattel. I didn’t think, needed the money, but everyone needs money (under a capitalist system), that’s why it’s called money. Warner Brothers desperately need money, because they keep bringing out terrible and unpopular movies (and that’s just the DC ones). Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach probably have enough money. I guess from a marketing perspective making a movie about a product is mostly about trying to make money from the brand that product represents, and as another way of promoting and selling more of the product itself.
This is also not the first Barbie movie. Anyone with cable and children knows there are hundreds of cheaply animated movies where Barbie has adventures and sells new play sets and outfits and merchandise and makes friends along the way.
But Barbie is already iconic. Barbie is as iconic and recognisable internationally as Coke, as Doc Martens, as Michael Jackson.
Whoa, I’m not saying it’s a good thing.
She is a synecdoche – A ‘Barbie’ is synonymous for a ‘doll’ the way that when most people mention “doll” people think of Barbies. And within her Barbieland all Barbies are defined by their professions (mostly), but are distinctly different from each other, but are only there because they’re Barbies (or Kens). Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) doesn’t have a job beyond being Stereotypical Barbie.
One of the Kens (Gosling) only defines himself by his proximity to Barbie and his job (outfit) which is Beach. He’s not a lifeguard, or a surfer, he’s just Beach.
This reminds me of one of my favourite anecdotes about the marketing for this movie. Thanks to an error in translation deliberate or otherwise, in France apparently a bunch of posters went out for display on bus shelters and, I dunno, the sides of beret shops and croissant patisseries saying “She’s Everything, but he’s just Ken”. But in French, it went out as “Elle peut tout Faire. Lui, c’est juste Ken.”
What those billboards said to French people was “She knows everything, he just fucks.”
The French, eh? Keeping things always classy.
This discrepancy in labour equality-access aside, the Barbies (except Stereotypical Barbie) can be lots of things, but problems arise because the Kens are accessories for the Barbies. Their purpose is ornamental, rather than aspirational. They’re also effectively homeless, just standing around.
Some cunning or unscrupulous jerk could abuse their naivety and their resentment in order to, I dunno, try to become the president of Barbieland, and change things so that the Barbies (women) lose their rights, and access to their dream homes.
I’m not saying it’s a thinly veiled approximation of what happened during the years of that horrible orange emperor who briefly ruled the States, but I’m not not saying that. And it’s certainly a thing that happens in this movie.
There is a running joke (outside of this movie) that part of the inspiration for this flick arose not from the desire to sell people more Barbie merchandise, but that it came at least partially from a very funny line of dialogue from Toy Story III, which had the Barbie (doll) character there at one stage fiercly proclaim “Authority derives from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!” The joke was meant to be that such a line was coming from a Barbie, and not from a libertarian guy with a neckbeard on a Youtube video telling his manifesto to his 12 followers.
And yet this flick runs with it deliberately putting lines like that in her mouth not to just amuse us with the fact that Barbie is as intelligent or as not intelligent as the person, kid or otherwise, who plays with her.
Because this is pretty much a fantasy film set in the present, which both pretends that these beings are sentient and self-aware, but that they exist in some bubble universe connected to our own, it’s the “our own” part that’s meant to make sense, and is meant to make Barbie want to understand it in order to understand herself. But that real world is no more real than Barbieland, really. The CEO of Mattel is played by Wil Farrell, with about as much subtlety and nuance as the Lord Business villain he played in The Lego Movie. Barbie is arrested twice in quick succession for assault and for theft, in the space of minutes, with zero repercussions, really.
When she interacts with the daughter character who hates her, who Barbie thought was her reason for being, and the solution to her problems, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), expresses all the common arguments that people have been making for decades about Barbies, about the unreasonable expectations “she” foisted upon the girls and women of the world, the self-hatred she’s engendered, the beauty myths she still perpetuates.
And, honestly, even as someone who enjoyed this film, the whole time where I was involved in the lives of young children, we never bought a single Barbie product, either for our kid or for any of the kids of friends and family. We had a blanket anti-Barbie policy, always.
And now that the time has passed, where childhood toys are no longer relevant to us, I’m no more inclined to purchase any of that plastic shit than I was before just because of this film. If anything this flick is funny, and makes some (vaguely) feminist arguments about society and who gets to wield political and economic power, and why, with a ‘novel’ solution at the end (to the problem of potential patriarchy taking over Barblieland). But the fact that this wellspring of ideas springs from a source as unlikely and absurd as Barbie doesn’t change my approach to Barbies at all.
And I think Greta Gerwig, and to a lesser extent, Noah Baumbach are as mindful of that as we are. The success of the flick, whilst appreciated, must be as absurd to them as it is to us. They must have thought “fuck it, let’s go for broke” and delivered a berserk, bizarre, subversive script that does stuff and says stuff they’d never get away with in their other movies.
The array of Barbies… there’s some humour in that level of diversity. I mean of course there’s the entire fact that they’re ticking off both the roll call sheet of weird Barbies that have existed over the years, but then there’s the array of Kens of different nationalities, but stuff like Rob Brydon playing an older Sugar Daddy Ken, and a number of Kens who are clearly coded as gay (not to mention the creepy ally the Barbies have in Allen (Michael Cera). And as for the conflict between the Kens as well, many of them seem to be more in love with Gosling’s Ken than they ever are with Barbies (especially Kingsley Ben-Adair’s Ken. Especially, let me underline that).
It was hard to not think of Zoolander some times when there were a lot of Kens onscreen at any time.
It's…funny. Funny ha ha and funny strange as well. Barbie meets both the woman whose obtrusive thoughts she’s sharing (America Ferrara), and also her creator, Ruth Handler (the great Rhea Perlman), both of which complicate her journey, neither of which solves the problems arising in Barbieland. Margot Robbie does very well in a purely comedic role, but she also manages to give an earnestness and single-mindedness that isn’t a world away from the way she plays Harley Quinn in various movies.
This flick has far less murder, but it also has Gosling’s Ken learning the wrong lessons from the ‘real’ world, and trying to unleash patriarchy where it does not belong. But it’s all done so comedically, so adeptly, that even after all the terrible things he nearly did to the Barbies of Barbieland through his stupid Ken minions, taking away their autonomy, trying to make Matchbox 20’s Push the new national anthem, well, all can be forgiven.
Even then, Barbie admonishes him, and encourages him to put away the red pill, and figure out himself and his worth independent of her, and then maybe she’ll hang out with him.
The fact that these dolls aren’t, uh, anatomically correct gets a lot of mileage in a flick which I don’t think is really aimed at kids. I don’t think anyone, especially the French who saw those posters, were ever really under the impression this flick was for kids, unless, wow, no, different standards ew. I think the peeps that would be most disappointed by this would be a young girl clutching her favourite Barbie in her favourite outfit listening to Ken loudly insist to a bunch of construction workers that he has “ALL the Genitals!”
Gosling is especially funny in this flick, getting some of the flicks dumbest and funniest lines, but I don’t think he at all outshines Robbie. He just has to be louder and noisier to try to take up more space, but, we know, that’s just his ego making him be a bit of a jerk, and that he might chill out in time.
As well as being laugh out loud funny in parts (to me), the movie manages to be quite touching as well. The perfect use of Closer to Fine by the Indigo Girls, and even more so, What Was I Made For? by Billie Eilish had me sobbing, sobbing like a little girl with a skinned knee. Wait, that’s sexist and ageist? I cried quietly, I was quite moved. America Ferrara’s speech about the paradoxical nature of trying to be a woman and a mother in this day and age…my gods, as if I didn’t want to burn down the patriarchy before. And the reconciliation between mother and daughter…stop, just give me a second…
And yet, it’s a movie about a goddamn doll. How did they do it?
Definitely, bizarrely, one of the films of the year, no question.
9 times I wonder what I was made for, too, out of 10
“To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn't just about horses, I lost interest.” – same here, buddy - Barbie