It’s a “Barbie” world, and we just live in it.
That, at least, is how it’s felt for the last few weeks — months? — as the promotions, product tie-ins and endless Pepto-Bismol-hued carpets have circled the globe to push a picture about a children’s toy, relentlessly. Don’t worry. Don’t question. Think pink!
But while the plaything is plastic, the movie is real. And, now that it’s here, kind of fun.
Until, eventually, it isn’t.
Some of the more complicated sequences aren’t particularly well staged (it’s a much bigger movie than anything director Greta Gerwig has done before). The tonal shifts are sometimes abrupt, and the pacing falters. And the jokes run out at least 20 minutes before the film does.
Like the toy it salutes, it looks great. But it’s mostly hollow inside.
Stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, however, are perfect as Barbie and Ken — in fact, they’re as perfect as Barbie and Ken. And the film’s surreal production design and unapologetically progressive politics are a powerful, provocative combination. The big cast of characters even includes, quietly, a Trans Barbie, which will probably leave homophobes speechless.
At least we can hope, anyway.
The story — after a prologue that’s the first funny “2001” parody in years — takes us to Barbie World, where all the women are named Barbie and everyone has her own Dream House. But reflecting “modern” Barbie dolls, they’re all different sizes, colors and abilities. There’s Supreme Court Justice Barbie, Prize-Winning Novelist Barbie, even President Barbie.
The men, meanwhile, are all Ken. Just Ken.
The males are feeling a little superfluous, but the females — particularly the stunning Stereotypical Barbie, played by Robbie — are doing just fine. Until one morning Stereotypical Barbie wakes up with flat feet, and a tiny patch of cellulite. She even suddenly has existential doubts. Whoever owns her back in the human world is not playing the usual pretend games.
And so Barbie — accompanied by perpetual tag-along Ken — gets in her snazzy convertible and drives all the way to real-life Malibu to fix everything.
This first half of the movie is pretty wonderful. We already knew Gerwig was a smart writer — her witty “Lady Bird” was based on an original screenplay, and her adaptation of “Little Women” took some carefully considered risks. Working here with longtime partner Noah Baumbach, she’s front-loaded the script with throwaway jokes and inventive sight gags.
What’s exciting to discover, though, is what a terrific visual stylist she can be, too. “Lady Bird” was smartly edited, and “Little Women” had some lovely sweep, but given her first really big canvas, Gerwig fills it beautifully. Landscapes in Barbie Land are as deliciously artificial as the special effects in a Georges Méliès short. Dance numbers burst into colorful bloom, like in Jacques Demy musicals.
Robbie is, of course, perfectly cast. Her pinup prettiness has been used before, but here, perhaps for the first time, she’s using it herself, to show how much messy interior life it can hide. And Gosling proves himself not only a good sport but a wry comedian; he may be the best and silliest square-jawed straight man since Leslie Nielsen.
But then Barbie and Ken get to our real world, and the giddy fun slowly starts to fade.
At first, the flaws are small. Ken rushes home, energized by the (macho, arrogant, sexist) way he sees “real men” acting. Alone, Barbie goes to Mattel headquarters, and encounters some broadly clowning male executives, led by Will Ferrell. (The callback to the earlier “The Lego Movie,” which Ferrell appeared in, is cute; the ensuing product placement for Warner Bros. Discovery, which produced this movie, is not.)
But then a big, badly orchestrated chase scene follows, consisting mostly of panicked people running back and forth, screaming. Barbie returns to Barbie Land only to discover that, since his return, Ken has led the men in a piggish revolution to establish a patriarchal society in which all the babes have been brainwashed into subservience and all the bros pound brewskis.
And then things get really awkward.
The feminist message which had been there from the beginning, quietly and organically, now becomes obvious and humorlessly hammered home. Worse, it’s then immediately undercut by a new plot in which all the Barbies band together and use clichéd “feminine wiles” (pretend to be helpless, use flattery, make him jealous) to first hook the Kens and then drive them crazy.
For a movie supposedly standing against sexism, it’s a horribly sexist message — something out of a ’50s sitcom. So the only way to really compete with men is to simper and manipulate, to lie and bat your lashes? What’s next? A relaunch of the old talking Barbie doll who used to whine “Math class is hard!”
And it’s at this point, with half an hour still to go, that Gerwig loses control of the picture.
There is a huge battle-of-the-Kens, as badly staged as the earlier chase sequence. There is a sort of “Waiting for Godot” scene — yes, it’s new Beckett Barbie! — with perfectly blank sets and questions about existence and identity. And by the time we finally get to the supposed happy ending — with new, Non-Stereotypical Barbie trading in heels for Birkenstocks and …
I don’t know, Aunt Greta. Can we play with something else for a while? I’m getting kind of bored with this.
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