You're my doll, rock 'n' roll, feel the glamour in pink
I try to keep up with the majority of movies released, but this little indie slipped under my radar until it came to streaming last month. I decided to give it a shot.
Listen, there’s no way around it: Structurally, narratively, thematically, Barbie is a total clusterfuck. I watched it with my wife and I must have said about 10 times “what the hell is happening right now?” The world-building is gibberish, and the thematic throughline is nonexistent, unless you count saying the words “yay feminism, boo patriarchy” with jazz hands to be a “theme.” No sooner has Barbie committed to one thread before it abruptly jumps to a next one. Greta Gerwig just kept saying “yes”: For a minute it’s a riff on Toy Story and the way we project complex feelings and societal ideas onto our disposable plastic playthings; the next, it’s a toothless, cartoony critique of capitalism and its hypocrisies via the Mattel board; the next, it’s a zealous bit of yass queen feminism with the intellectual depth of an Instagram caption; the next, it’s a heist movie; the next, it’s a campy parody of classic musicals; etc. etc. etc. And should it open with an extended 2001: A Space Odyssey parody? Why not!?
Once I realized about a half hour in that this was a no-discipline kitchen sink film, I gave up. And I mean that positively: I decided that the way I was going to enjoy Barbie was to let go of any desire for it to provide a coherent experience or worthwhile lesson. Instead, I let it wash over me, embracing bits of production design, individual gags, and performances without expecting it to do much more than offer fleeting pleasure and inventiveness. And you know what? It worked. I ended up having quite a bit of fun for the remaining three-quarters of Barbie and have softened in my feelings thinking back on parts that initially bugged me.
Barbie both suffers and benefits from the experience I felt while watching and reflecting upon Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s big and gaudy and messy, and whenever I try to explain what works about it, I end up pretty quickly talking myself into a pretzel where I dwell on what’s broken rather than what lands. But if I only think about how it makes me feel as an expansive artistic experience, then it clicks.
This conundrum is increasingly common when I watch movies: Barbie is part of a style I call fantastical postmodern maximalism that is not only creeping into Hollywood, but gaining genuine traction among industry-heads. (Birdman’s Best Picture win over Boyhood acknowledged it; EEAAO’s win locked it in.) These films aim to wow you with ambitious storytelling sweep, structural gambits, and buckets of style. They cut against the grain of modern, linear storytelling and explore topics assuming we’ve heard these stories before and need to deliver their message in indirect, perhaps ironic, ways.
Maybe five or ten years from now I’ll look back and wonder why I ever thought I liked the daunting much-ness and incoherence of these movies and weep for the lack of focus and small-scale pleasures in our cinema. For now I’m having fun riding the wave.
Nothing in Barbie is more maximal than the lavish costume and production design. It’s hard to imagine a more colorful, playful mise en scene than Barbieland. Never will the term “dollhouse aesthetic” be more apt than for these geometric, open-air sets. And we spend our time in Barbieland bumping into a cavalcade of attractive actors and actresses parading around in a feast of wonderful outfits (should we pre-empitvely designate Jacqueline Duran the winner for Best Costume Design?). Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto brings out all the colors with lovely photography, crisply hyper-lit like a toy commercial.
A quick aside: If the “dollhouse” moniker didn’t give it away, the film seems to pull heavily from the cinematic style and language of Wes Anderson, whose work has also been on my mind given his busy 2023. In particular, there are shots of traveling between the “real world” and Barbieland that have the same this-could-be-a-postcard compositions of recent Anderson films. I wonder if Anderson hadn’t gone so deep into his own rabbit hole if he could have a bona fide hit in 2023.
Barbie’s acting is quite a bit of fun, possibly the best part of the film. Ryan Gosling as Ken has received the lion’s share of headlines and awards season buzz. He’s quite good, and frankly Ken (perhaps ironically) gets the most interesting and persuasive arc in the movie, not to mention the TikTokkable “I’m Just Ken” musical sequence. No surprise his performance is getting attention.
But I think Margot Robbie’s performance is not just better and more complex, but solidifies her hold as one of the most daring actresses currently working. It’s tough to imagine anyone else pulling off this and Babylon less than a year apart. Both weaponize and deconstruct her outrageous beauty, but in very different ways; both require a commitment and interiority for heightened, quasi-human characters.
Given its daunting busyness, the sheer density of images and gimmicks and plot ideas, I’m not sure there’s ever been a movie where it’s easier to make a sprawling bullet list of reactions to the film. Here are two notes that I didn’t manage to fit elsewhere in this review: 1) America Ferrara is one of Hollywood’s best comedic straight actresses, here used in a boring and unpleasant character stuck delivering rants and platitudes. 2) The late montage of the cast and crew home videos is the single most unnecessary part of the film, and it still made me choke up.
But is Barbie good? And, relatedly, is Barbie good for movies as a commercial artform? I’d say, in both cases, I’d offer a very soft “yes.” Starting with the latter question: I’d much rather a colorful, playful, messy film like this be the box office runaway train than another superhero movie or Jurassic Park 7. If studios take away the right lessons (give emerging filmmakers like Gerwig budget and support for grand, high-concept projects) rather than the wrong ones (we need more movies based on toy brands and should force gimmicky marketing campaigns like Barbenheimer), then Barbie would be a miracle. A pathway to escape Marvel malaise. Then again, the odds of them learning the right lessons are pretty much zero.
I would be remiss if I didn’t remind people that Teen Beach Movie used similarly colorful aesthetics (on a TV budget) to explore the complexities and contradictions of feminism ten years ago. And it did so while riffing on old beach party movies rather than a doll (much funnier idea), with one of the most banging soundtracks of the past quarter century, and to much more resonant thematic effect.
Back to the question of whether Barbie is good: It’s tough to say because this is such a confounding film. If I put every creative decision in a ledger of what works and what doesn’t, I think it would tilt negative, particularly with regards to the overbearing screenplay. And yet, I was smiling most of the time. It’s fun to look at; fun to let it drown you in its noise. Of course, it’s no fun at all if you want a comprehensible story with a digestible theme or a coherent treatise on modern womanhood. But better an incoherent joy ride than a focused bummer. Right? (Maybe I should call it a “guilty pleasure”?)
Now if only anyone had gone to see it in theaters we’d really have something to talk about.