Monday, July 24, 2023

Barbie faces an existential crisis -- really


     Imagine a world in which Barbie (yes, that Barbie) suddenly begins thinking about death. What if dark thoughts intrude on Barbie’s otherwise bright and shining life?
     But wait. You don't have to imagine such a scenario. Director Greta Gerwig has done it for you.
     Part satire, part pop-cultural celebration, and part cheering session for feminist assertion, Gerwig's Barbie tries to accomplish a neat trick -- at least as far as its audience is concerned. 
    The movie attempts to please the adoring legions of girls who grew up playing with Barbies while also taking a bite (a soft one to be sure) from a satirical apple.
      Whatever it's about, Barbie derives much of its comic kick from the pink-hued work of production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran. They create Barbieland, an aggressively happy place that might be the best thing the movie has to offer.
      Two star turns help keep the movie spinning. Margot Robbie makes a smiling Barbie whose perfect life unravels when she begins having unwanted thoughts and (oh, the horror!) her beautifully arched feet turn flat.
      Working a high-beam smile and allowing an occasional lonely teardrop to roll down her face, Robbie slips into full Barbie mode. 
    Ryan Gosling plays Ken, the male doll who, at the outset, lives only to bask in the warmth of Barbie's gaze, a role that’s bound to breed discontent.
    Written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, the story eventually takes Barbie to the real world of Los Angeles where she tries to find the girl whose thoughts plunged her into existential crisis. There’s evidently an emotional link between the Barbies and the girls who play with them.
    Ken tags along with Barbie but eventually returns to Barbieland, where he tries to establish his stilted idea of patriarchal government, ousting Barbie president Isa Rae and engaging in parodic muscle flexing. He becomes the ultimate poseur. 
      Barbie remains in LA for a while, eventually meeting and fleeing from Mattel executives -- led by Will Ferrell -- who want to put her back into a box -- literally.
       Hey, if you’re looking for subtlety, you’re in the wrong place.
       When a fleeing Barbie finally returns to Barbieland, she's accompanied by humans. America Ferrera plays a former Barbie enthusiast, a Mattel employee who travels to Barbieland with her skeptical teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt). 
      Robie's Barbie describes herself as Stereotypical Barbie, which suggests she's not alone. Barbieland is home to all manner of Barbies, some representing various stages of the doll's evolution.
         Ken isn't alone either. A multitude of Kens inhabit Barbieland.
         Kate McKinnon plays Weird Barbie, an exile in Barbieland who fell out of favor when someone played too hard with her. 
         Gerwig works overtime to incorporate meaning into this pink bauble of a movie. Does Barbie inspire girls to be more than smiling dolls?  Is she a product of the male quest for dominance, an unattainable role model to which no girl can measure up? Can the human world coexist with heavily marketed merchandise? 
         In some ways, Barbie is nothing more than a dressed-up sketch that wants to have it both ways, treating Barbie as a pop-cultural heroine and as a satirical object in a story that argues that young women must create identities free of commercial and social influences. 
         Another way to pose the question: To be plastic or not to be plastic?
         Gerwig finds enough laughs to keep anyone from trying to plumb any depths or wonder whether the plot makes any sense at all. 
       Enough. You've probably read that Barbie ends with a one-liner that gives the film its sharpest kick. It does.


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