Barbie (2023)

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.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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3 replies on “Barbie (2023)”

From a big-picture point of view, I don’t understand why a movie about a toy – created by a woman and enjoyed almost exclusively by girls/women, an item that men have close to zero association with – decided to be a screed about “the patriarchy.” This movie would’ve been significantly better if it was just a version of “Elf” (maybe crossed with some “Toy Story,” as you mentioned). I liked the beginning, with its carefree effervescence, the most; when it tries to get serious I think it becomes a disaster.

Everything about this movie feels a couple decades behind the times, from its “patriarchy” attitudes to the cultural touchstone jokes it makes. Hey, did you know that people like The Godfather, and sometimes guys play guitar for girls they want to impress? I’ve never heard that before…

Also, not to get too polemical, but America Ferrara’s big “everything is your fault” speech is an embarrassing, narcissistic whine that taints the entire third act. Almost everything she complains about either a) applies to everybody equally, b) reflects pressures that come from other women more than men, or c) are just basic life skills that people should have for their own good and the good of society as a whole. I like Gerwig and Baumbach (hell, the latter made one of my favorite movies ever), but parts of this movie made me wonder what reality they’re living in.

The Robbie + Gosling casting was perfect, though, and Gosling is the best thing about it for me, although much of his arc is as nonsensical as the rest of the movie. In his “I’m Just Ken” song near the end, he sounds quite secure in himself and what he brings to the table as he laments Barbie not loving him, then a few minutes later he’s having a crisis of confidence in her arms, all but begging for validation. Strange. Great abs, though. You gotta give him that.

As far as a big-picture view goes, I’d have been startled if the movie had done anything else–before it came out, I read a plaintive post from a lady (in fairness, an old lady, I believe she’s like 70) who was preemptively bemoaning how anti-feminist Barbie was gonna be, and it took me some restraint not to tell her she was absurdly out of touch. Barbie doesn’t have a narrative, so its narrative was always going to be about Barbie the Concept, and Barbie the Concept has been managed by Mattel forever to be as palatable as possible to moms (at this point grandmoms, and, sure, dads and grandads) who want their daughters to, for instance,be good at math, while still providing a fantasy that is probably more significantly about buying clothes. In 2023, this was unavoidable, to the extent that I feel giving Gerwig special credit for doin’ a feminism is misplaced; she executed, and she can be praised for that, but the movie could’ve been directed by, like, Renny Harlin and would’ve the expressed the same broad worldview. “Ken as sympathetic misguided MRA” is undoubtedly the bravest thing about it. But the alternative is a movie about shopping or going to the moon or having situation comedy with Barbie’s social group or whatever, and these movies evidently exist, I think there’s like 40 of them. But the $100 million Barbie event film was necessarily going to be meta.

More or less agree on the big speech; I’m sympathetic to the idea that to make it rousing, it’s going to have to dispense with “degree, not kind” nuance and adopt a middle school idea of masculinity where I guess I don’t have to balance “being assertive” and “being likeable” and handle every social interaction with, I guess, screaming and threats–taken literally it’s pretty goofy–but as noted, I’m sympathetic, I just don’t understand why it had to be twenty minutes long.

I see it as part and parcel with the “poptimism” movement which includes, as per Hunter’s comment, a “middle school idea” of feminism and identity politics that borders on the performative, or at least the highly affected (think Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” video). I do agree that it’s grating and lacking nuance. But then it’s the Barbie movie, so I’m not too surprised.

(I really like America Ferrera so I was glad to see her at least.)

Really appreciate your thoughts and comments on this (Nate and Hunter). Elf is a great comp I hadn’t thought of, btw.

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