Monday August 14, 2023
Movie Review: Barbie (2023)
Given everything writer-director Greta Gerwig had to work with—making a movie about a 1950s doll that is representative of sexism, repression and body-image issues, and somehow make it fun and funny and empowering, and with Mattel, the doll’s manufacturer, as one of the film’s producers—given all of that inevitable hassle, “Barbie” is pretty fucking amazing.
Given not all that … well, it’s still not bad. Beats another “Fast & Furious” or “Thor” or “Top Gun.” It’s about dolls but it relates to us. But it never has the emotional resonance of a “Toy Story” or “Inside Out.” It feels like it misses opportunities.
It’s a feminist movie, sure, but it’s trots out Feminism 101 talking points that anyone with ears has heard for decades. And it replaces a patriarchy with a matriarchy and says “Now we’re even.” OK?
Here’s a missed opportunity. A few years back, John Mulaney did a bit about his father’s generation. “My dad has no friends. And your dad has no friends. If you think your dad has friends you’re wrong. Your mom has friends and they have husbands. [Shakes head] Those are not your dad’s friends.” I flashed on this when Ken talked about how much he needed Barbie. That it was “Barbie and Ken,” and he was just “... and Ken,” and had no life of his own. And maybe she, or he, should’ve said that he really needed to hang with all the other Kens (and Allans, Kens’ friends!) rather than with the girl who didn’t need him.
And yes, I’m focusing on the men in a rare female-centric film; but I’m not suggesting more stuff with men, just different stuff with men.
But man did I laugh at the Zack Snyder joke.
Mean Boss Barbie
The movie begins with Barbie (Margot Robbie, perfect) having another dream day in her dream house, hanging with all the other Barbies—including Pres. Barbie (Issa Rae), scientist Barbie (Emma Mackey) and writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp)—and all but ignoring the super-needy Ken (Ryan Gosling, fantastic), whose job, he says, is not being a lifeguard but “the beach.” He just does “the beach.”
Then during a girls party at the dreamhouse, Barbie lets slip something about death and when the next day begins it’s … different. She wakes up tired and annoyed. Her breath stinks, the fake shower is cold and the fake drink tastes awful. What’s happening? The real disaster is back at the beach when she steps out of her high-heeled shoes. Rather than staying en pointe, her heels flop to the ground. Flat feet!
So she drives to meet Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, brilliant), who had been abused back in the day, and who suggests a symbiotic relationship has developed between Barbie and the girl playing with her in the real world. And Barbie needs to travel to the real world to work it all out.
Ken smuggles himself aboard, of course, joining the chorus as Barbie sings the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” and they travel through various Barbie-scapes until they land in that real-world locale closest to a Barbie-scape: Malibu Beach, Calif. She immediately feels weird and he immediately feels empowered. Because sexism. It’s the real world, not the Barbie one.
But which real world? That’s what I kept wondering. It feels like the early ’90s—you see images of Bill Clinton and Sylvester Stallone—but no one says it exactly. The Mattel board is just white dudes (led by Will Ferrell), and they’re all fine with it, and no one brings up diversity. That doesn’t feel like today or even this century. I mean, I’m never in these boardrooms, so maybe I’m wrong, but the PR push for the last several decades is certainly toward inclusion. So it all feels off. And it winds up being fish-in-a-barrel stuff.
Turns out, too, Barbie’s not symbiotically connected with a little girl, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), but her mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), who is dealing with both the patriarchy and a teen daughter who’s grown cold to her. To be honest, the latter is the bigger issue for mom but the movie doesn’t go there. No one says, “Patriarchy sucks, sure, but teen daughters are the worst.” Sasha, who softens, remains one of the movie’s heroes.
Anyway there’s a lot of chase scenes—both cops and Mattel execs are after her—and Barbie talks to an old woman at a bus stop and an old woman in a kitchen (Rhea Perlman playing Ruth, the doll’s creator), and then she and Gloria and Sasha all return to Barbie-land, which is now Douche-ville thanks to the lessons about patriarchy that Ken brought back from the real world. SCOTUS justices are now just bikini babes. Why and how did that happen? The analogy the movie uses isn’t bad: like Native Americans against European diseases, the Barbies had no natural immunity against patriarchal brainwashing and fell hard and fast. It still doesn’t speak well of women—or Barbies—but onward.
It's Gloria who inadvertently finds the cure that shakes the Barbies from their brainwashing when she rants about how impossible it is to be a woman:
You have to be thin but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss but you can’t be mean. You have to lead but you can’t squash other people’s ideas.
Can I complain about this complaint? It’s supposed to be gender-specific but is it? Certainly not all of it. “You have to be a boss but you can’t be mean” is true for men, too, and anyway why would you want to be mean? “You have to lead but you can’t squash other people’s ideas” is also true for men, and, again, why would you want to squash other people’s ideas? If other people’s ideas are better than yours, shit, use them, and reward the person. Half the complaints, too, are less against the patriarchy and feel more internecine: the thin/healthy, mom/professional debates women have amongst themselves.
Worse, none of it would mean anything to someone reared in a Barbieocracy. But it’s the thing that wakes them up? Then they use their sexual wiles to get all the Kens jealous of each other, leading to a Ken War at the very moment the Kens are attempting to vote in the patriarchy permanently. Man, if we could just do the same with Republicans.
There’s some great lines. At one point, Allan (Michael Cera, so good, welcome back!) tries to hitch a ride into the real world with Gloria and Sasha. Called on it, he exclaims:
Allans have been in the real word before—no one’s noticed! NSYNC? They’re all Allans! Even that one!
The movie also gets meta. When Barbie breaks down, saying she’s not pretty anymore, our narrator (Helen Mirren) interrupts the proceedings: “Note to filmmakers: Margot Robbie is not the actress to get this point across.”
But the line that made me love the movie forever is one that writer Barbie says as she snaps out of her bimbo state:
It’s like I’ve been in a dream where I was really invested in the Zack Snyder cut of “Justice League.”
I had a good time, and I’m glad the movie is swamping the worldwide box office. Yeah, it’s a product; yeah, you could say it's about the biggest product-placement movie of all time. It’s still worthwhile. I just hope it leads to more interesting discussions than we’re having.