Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Barbie (2023)

Humans have only one ending. Ideas live forever.

Contains slight spoilers

Movies do not solve everything. Neither do objects like dolls. But humans are prone to wanting things to be our way in every way imaginable and somehow remain unproblematic and bury imperfections under a mask. When Barbie was in the works, the pre-production was inundated with criticism that has been lauded on the iconic doll herself - can't be too much of this or that because one or the other is never enough. The goal posts are out there, but they're never set and there's never a concrete number of how many hoops we gotta jump through to accomplish something. They just keep moving away. There really is no wonder why we are all plagued with a sense of emptiness, depression, anxiety, body image issues, existential crises going on with our identities all the time.

The funny thing is that this is just a movie, and Barbie is just a doll. But they are both somehow much more than that. Barbie herself is everything, a collectible that helped generations of girls know they can be and do anything they want, and to some people, she is nothing, a piece of plastic who just defined girls into a stereotype of pink and impossible expectations. The movie also contends with the same things - the complications of being a woman, being a man, of being human, the fragile line of walking all these tightropes - for better and worse in a fantastical, imaginative, funny, moving, and relateable portrait of our times. It's also nothing - another movie that doesn't settle on satire, but also varying reminders of the social norms we can never fix.

Similar to Penny Marshall and Nora Ephron, there are just certain lines, moments, beats, scenes, that you just know comes from the mind of Greta Gerwig. With only three movies down as the writer and director, there's such wondrous specificity in the ad placements, the casting, gorgeous practical effects, and dreamy production design that echo her attention to detail and sense of wonder. She wants to have fun at the cinemas, and without being pretentious, she wants us to have fun too. And the combination of both - the vision of a director and the joy of an audience member - in the dolls mannerisms, costume design, props, and script to name a few balances out the potent film-making with the pure escape.

Additionally, the casting is pretty spot-on. As Stereotypical Barbie, Margot Robbie brings just enough of that "plastic" like perfection that, as usual, being as beautiful, skinny, and having-it-all-together on the surface, is cracking enough underneath to see where all of the pressure of the real world comes from and her wanting to find out something more for herself. Robbie balances the line of being more than an idea of the doll but someone with a real heart and is sensing that there is more to life than what she's been always known. The supporting cast fills out the rest of the chart more or less. They are all charming but I wouldn't be lying if I didn't want more for them - Issa Rae, Michael Cera, Kate McKinnon, Sim Lu, Hari Nef, America Ferrera to name a few. Perhaps, though, nobody beats out the main contender Ryan Gosling. The doll is everything he possibly needed to be but he's more than Just Ken. Beyond his social media busting red carpet appearances where he shared his wise words of Kenergy, he puts out at a searing comedic performance that gives all the other cinematic Himbos a run for the money. He plays the jokes well, but he never succumbs to only being the butt or abs of the toxic masculinity jokes.

Too many of us, all of us, are aware of the pressure of what is expected day to day - on social media, from consumerism, living with racism, sexism, and gender identity. Juxtaposing this with Barbie is not too far-fetched, and the landscape is there to work out on the idea. Barbie Land is the epitome of women's success - feminism and equal rights have been solved as all the Barbies in their utopia hold important jobs, live in their dream house with dream cars, and men wait with bated breath for the smallest amount of attention and respect. We've been there for thousands of years, am I right ladies?, so a part of me felt a bit vindicated to see the women in control, not vying for the love of their counterparts, wanting to party, and later after some self-discovery, get depressed and roll over. Again though, nothing is what it seems. Stereotypical Barbie starts facing some real obstacles - persistent thoughts of death, cellulite, a quest of how do I matter, scathing critiques of the Mattel and capitalistic suits from Gen Zers, and sexism. The real effects we get being women. As she goes on a quest to reconnect with the person who is playing with her as a doll and transplanting their fears into her, she heads towards the real world and gets thrown into a world created by men primarily for men. When Ken gets that same taste, he brings the good ol' patriarchy back to Barbie Land, scratch that Ken Dome, with horses and bro brewskies were already driving it home.

Where the film falters for me is that the commitment to Barbie Land is so high and delivered so well for the first half of the movie, the inclusion of "reality" starts feeling hollow and bland. I'm not talking about how Barbie Land is the epitome of pink and the corporate ladder is white and black. When we see Barbie Land, and get to live in that unfair yet weirdly satisfying utopia, the running jokes feel natural both towards the product brand and as a counter-portrait of the real world, even if it's with dolls. There's plenty of showing in the script, production design, and direction, that when the movies shifts into 'telling', it tells so much of what we already know and are aware of. As much as America Ferrara's impassioned monologue about the pressures of being a woman in the world makes me want to shout YEESSSSS til I'm blue in the face, it also comes close to being too on the nose of telling the point of the movie when it's already obvious what they're trying to achieve. For many, it will be a necessary scene that airs our frustrations directly, and that's great. For me, the film didn't need to belabor the point when so many things were super-ceded that.

Barbie being introduced to the new world does play to a point of a mic-drop punchline and empowering message that makes the story worth it. But it just strikes me that Ken could've easily visited a library (maybe for the first time ever) and come across a book about horses or President Reagan, and forced the same kind of coup, and the Barbies could've helped Stereotypical Barbie to show they are more than just their titles and brand image. Even more than that, there are other loosely-plugged in concepts that don't necessarily stick the landing - the old lady at the bus stop who is specifically filmed as a major cameo but is not Ruth Handler; Rhea Pearlman as Ruth Handler haunting Mattel and coming back as a god-like figure; the world-building of the dolls taking on their players emotions / some have gotten out before and put back / etc. Gerwig is so imaginative when it comes to the full vision of Barbie Land, a part of me wished the patriarchy was introduced solely in that landscape without the inclusion of the real world....because the latter just simply sucks too much to want to keep going back there, and the latter ideas feel more like sketches than fleshed out concepts.

The film did, I think, what nobody expected it to - make a billion dollars at the box office with a female director for the first time, jumpstart BarbieCore aesthetic all over social media, and bring back the conversation of letting a movie be for the women, but also for the guys. There's a lot going on for the movie - a lot of it works, some of it doesn't. After seeing the movie for the first time, I found myself wanting to go back to Barbie Land. I think a part of that is because it is a land to play, to imagine, to dream, to believe that women can do it all because we already do - out of necessity, out of narrative choices, out of our own journey of self-discovery. Gerwig certainly does it all here - comedy, musical, satire, heartfelt drama. When the two co-exist it's everything you want it to be, but it's also a little imperfect, and that's okay. What remains is that ideas like Barbie or equality or gender norms or sexism, shift and change, if we allow them to, and at some point it would be nice if they just weren't hidden better. There is no limit to what we or even a doll can do next. Yes, Barbie isn't here to solve everything. That's never going to happen in a two hour running time, let alone maybe for all-time. But sometimes seeing is enough, and that's a really great big ide and hope to have. Fingers crossed, at least.

Rating: ★★★★☆