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Barbie

*****
2023

‘…fun for kids, a mind-blower for thinking adults…’

Gather round, children, today’s word for today… is P for Patriarchy. While the Barbie movie offered another potential toy-brand synergy a la The Lego Movie or Super Mario Bros, bringing in top talent Greta Gerwig as writer and director ensured this blockbuster confection wouldn’t just be an extended promo for dolls. In a summer of aging yet juvenile male fantasy, expectations of a shocking pink summer blockbuster meant a full house for the afternoon showing I attended yesterday. It was packed with kids drawn by the ubiquitous advertising, brought by mothers drawn by the idea of a girlie film that might just dare to set a positive example, and both got what they wanted. Rising amounts of laughter and gasps indicated the kind of firm connection that movies used to offer more frequently; while awash with CGI, Gerwig’s Barbie doesn’t rely on pretty images to engage our minds.

Following on from a notable ‘kicking against the pricks’ performance in I Tonya, Margot Robbie plays Barbie, one of a number of Barbies in a Barbieland; her bestie, Ken (Ryan Gosling) doesn’t see much point in life without her, and when she travels on the mission to the real world, he stows away in her little pink car. Arriving in LA, Barbie discovers that her self-image is tarnished where little girls hate, deface or just prefer to forget about their once-beloved toy, largely due to their dissatisfaction with their own lives. Unable to rouse much support from her maker Mattel, Barbie identifies a specific source of the negativity, but by then Ken has discovered the joy of the patriarchy, and horses, and heads back to Barbie’s world to reconfigure one woman’s world with a more male imprint…

Co-writing with Noah Baumbach, whose Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted offered an educational narrative about self-development and not trying to be what you’re not, Gerwig crafts a very modern parable about women’s rights. Barbie makes a very sympathetic heroine as portrayed by Robbie; in a scene where Barbie bemoans not being pretty, Helen Mirren’s tart VO over correctly offers a note to the film-makers that the casting choice is problematic. But good looks aren’t everything, and existential Barbie’s search doesn’t begin or end with Ken; he’s the obstacle in her path. Played with the same comic lunk-head timing that featured in The Nice Guys, Gosling captures Ken’s imported brand of masculinity in a smart comic turn in a film packed with them; there’s also an instance of bleeped out swearing that raised a huge laugh. America Ferrara and Rhea Perlman’s scenes are stand-outs, but Barbie doesn’t rest her arched feet on music, gags or cameos, but is shot through with a well-articulated feminist polemic that audiences are likely to be discussing for a while to come.

In a society that has found it hard to identify or address the patriarchy that Gerwig effortlessly sketches, the movie’s smartest move is to invite us to share Barbie’s sheer horror when her ideal world is suddenly altered to a patriarchal one through Ken’s shallowness, a direct result of the hurtful rejection he feels because she doesn’t respond romantically to him. That Barbie resolves this, and in such a caring, imitable way, places this story on an eternal fault-line between men and women, including a great slam on how men talk about The Godfather. It would be utterly obtuse to take offence at how Barbie dismantles Ken’s idiotic world, but this playful tactic also allows Gerwig to rip deep into the ongoing social injustice the film confidently takes as read. Fun for kids, a mind-blower for thinking adults, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie deserves to be hailed as an innovation of today; as with Gerwig’s career generally to date, she wasn’t happy to be the idea, she wanted to HAVE the idea, and Barbie The Movie turns out to be an unexpectedly great idea for all concerned.

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  1. Since my review will drop in a few weeks, I won’t get into a deep dive just yet. I’ll only say that I have a love-hate relationship with the Barbie movie. Loved how it looked way more than the story they went with.

    P.S. My entire review will be pink.

  2. It’s really the fundamental filmmaking technique which gets me, how it’s surprisingly weak, and is a bit of a mess. The way things happen prevents me from really getting into the story, it’s messy and surface deep. You may say this is secondary, I’d argue it’s the foundation of all great films, and you put the other emotional and fun stuff on top of that foundation.
    Robocop is impeccably written and structured, you really give a damn about this robot.
    Did you honestly feel a smidgen of what you felt for that robot than what you did with this doll?
    I really didn’t care for any of the Barbie characters.
    And all this is contrasted with the gabble on the internet about how amazing it all is. I think people deserve better on these kinds of topics, and the marketing has a sickening pervasiveness.
    The doll maker didn’t even invent it, she copied it from a 1950s German doll called Bild Lilli. But let’s not get into that.

  3. That opening 2001 parody fell flat with the packed audience I saw it with. I don’t think half of them had even heard of 2001, so those girls violently smashing dolls was a bad note.

    Margot Robbie would have been a terrible Barbie, she lacks the sweetness of the doll’s character, and that Australian toughness still shows through despite the American accent. But it’s OK because she’s not playing Barbie, she’s playing Greta Gerwig!

    So many issues with this film, it’s like a student film at times with it’s gaping screenplay problems and ‘wait, how can that happen because… oh nevermind, whatever…’

    When you start watching a film where things just happen because they need to, then there are no authentic consequences to what we are seeing. So nothing that happens really matters anymore. As a result you lose interest, its all just fluff.

    We need a scene with the doll’s creator but damn she’s dead. Nevermind let’s just make her a ghost! Yeah cool! Yipeee! Are those the rules of the world we are in? They keep changing them every 2 minutes just so they can fit another scene.

    We’re in the ‘real world’ but Barbie just waltzes into Mattel Tower, past the security gates, up the lift, past the secretary and into a top level meeting. Eh?

    Hmm that scene with Margot complaing about her looks is really not working in the editing room. Bah just stick a voiceover over it, that will cover up the mistake.

    Those workmen she meets on Venice beach, twitter feed dialogue, totally unbelievable characterisation. If youre going to make important political points, then do it in a believable way. Men like that slave on the roads through crap hours, in crap conditions, for crap pay, and have little job security and few qualifications to get other work. That brings them a wisdom, and dry humour. It doesnt make them mopey muppet show characters.

    How did the daughter change so suddenly from raging volcano to this is all so cool? Felt very false, sudden and unexplained.

    I’d argue the film’s success is down to the zeitgeist it’s hitting, with young peoples lives made up of instagram and porn, they look to Barbie to make sense of their contradictional feelings of primal lust and morals. It’s a wasted opportunity to make something genuinely entertaining and thoughtful. For me this film shows the higher Gerwig aims in her commercial filmmaking ambitions, the more out of her depth she appears. The best scenes were when she went back to her indie speciality. And even these were a bit off (the bench scene that goes nowhere and the silly way she says ‘I know’)

    The only thing I could take away from this was when walking out was: all men should be more like my amazing husband Noah Baumbach.

    Afterwards I genuinely felt like a depressed guilty piece of shit for the next two days, all for me and my silly fantasies and ideas about women and sex and fun.

    Then I watched some Camille Paglia videos and remembered Greta Gerwig is NOT the final line in feminism, despite what the marketers keep hammering home to us, and despite the ‘too cool for school’ way she keeps flinging her anxieties at us.

    • Taking a deep dive into this, you make a number of points, and well, and here’s what I saw differently. Kids will just love seeing dolls and bright colours and silly situations; they don’t need to get the 2001 reference. But you nail something when you say that this is a film about Gerwig, it’s clearly reflective of her own progess, from ingenue, to fluff support roles in guff like Arthur, to wanting to be the person with ideas rather than the idea. So she’s created a parable story, one where the details of how we get in and out of buildings, or dimensions, are secondary to the emotional and spiritual journey taken. And you’re also totally correct that the notion of Barbie in the age of social media is about the gap between the life we want and the life we have. And I think Gerwig pulls that off, showing her protagonist attacking a cartoon version of the patriarchy to avoid causing direct offence, but Barbie is also trying to make a better world in a way that doesn’t run by a male definition. Putting this kind of personal content into a film that’s likely to be watched, rewatched and idolised for decades to come, makes this a very unusual blockbuster. But I’m sure you’re not the only one who’ll feel alienated by the portrayal of men, but then again, how often do female characters get a raw deal in movies made by men? I’ve followed Getwig back since her mumblecore days, and never anticipated this kind of monolithic pop culture sensation, and there will be a backlash for sure. But this movie was developed long before Gerwig was involved, with Amy Poehler as Barbie, and that movie, fun thought it might have been, wouldn’t have the reach this has, she’s done something different to a normal kids of toy movie. And for your final point, absolutely not the last word on anything, and some elements of the parable did rub me the wrong way in terms of stereotyping men in return; I’m pretty sure we won’t be alone in this.

  4. Didn’t like it as much as I hoped. Felt it lacked the subtlety of the usual Gerwig. I did laugh a couple of time but not as much as I’d like and I didn’t have the smarts to see this as not shrill feminism and more enlightened. Shame that the men never developed beyond idiots or himbos or both.

    • I do think this has got the layers to it that I hoped for, but I agree that some men will feel slighted by the Ken mindset.

  5. I saw this yesterday in a packed theater and everybody–myself included–had the time of their lives;

    My friend and I — as well as most of the theater, including some very enthusiastic guys sitting right behind us — laughed out loud multiple times throughout the film.

    Agree with your review completely – and here’s the thing I would say to those who think it’s just a shrill feminist screed – it’s really not. Of course it’s all about the patriarchy and feminism, etc etc but unlike most films with these themes, it never ever ever forgets that it’s a movie who’s first job is to entertain.

    It’s funny, it’s sooo tongue-in-cheek, and the opening spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey is worth the price of admission.

    It’s carefully crafted. And I dare say that Gerwig succeeded when she said she wanted to make a work of art.

    • It’s a rare movie that should satify the young, but also older people keen to hear what Gerwig has to say. I loved the scene where Barbie tells Ken that she’s sorry for the hurt feelings that caused the whole conflict; that’s a grace note that really suggests a bigger picture than just women vs men. Gerwig is a treasure for sure, and Barlie will introduce her to an audience that wouldn’t see Miss America , Frances Ha or other films that she’s been involved in. A winner all round!

  6. Well, you just ruined this movie for me. Not that I was going to watch it anyway, but now I can grump and complain and feel justified in not watching it. Thanks!
    😉

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