Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023)

Life in plastic

I put it to my wife. "Want to see a movie?" "Which one?" "Barbie."

She gave me a look. "I know I know I know, but I feel funny watching it alone."

"Seriously? You took your teenage son to watch Magic Mike."

"You don't have to bring that up. We're both still trying to get over that experience."

Upshot of which is that she finally agreed to go, fell asleep around the twenty minute mark, woke up in time for the end credits. I filled her in on the details during dinner at a Japanese restaurant-- her price for agreeing to come with me. 

As for the movie itself? Couldn't blame her for falling asleep; for that first twenty minutes in Barbieland the movie is brilliant satire skewering gender roles, the notion of toys representing an idealized life, the consumerist lifestyle, the male ego's insecurities, and (of all things) Stanley Kubrick, all without breaking out in a sweat. Gerwig collaborated with her work and life partner Noah Baumbach and they're like skilled tennis players swatting down satiric targets like slow-buzzing flies. It's a wondrous achievement and easily the best thing I've seen Gerwig do as writer and director. 

Then Barbie (Margot Robbie) leaves for Los Angeles and the movie sags. Not at first; I liked the idea of Barbie and Ken (Ryan Gosling channeling Mike Pence in drag) being ogled for their day-glo gear, I liked her escapades that mostly end up at the police station, and I liked Sasha's (Ariana Greenblatt) takedown of Barbie's fascist aesthetics. But when we peek into the corporate offices of Mattel we see Gerwig and Baumbach retract their claws: Will Ferrell as the Mattel CEO is amusing but cartoonish; the rest of the corporate officers are like seven dwarves waddling in the wake of Ferrell's Snow White-- klutzy and endearing but too fuzzily drawn to draw real blood. 

Ken has a revelation Ben Shapiro style-- in the real world men are in charge!-- and returns to Barbieland to spread the word to his Kendred. I don't like the suggestion, tho, that a man needs qualifications or a college degree; not that I'm opposed to education per se, but it just isn't true. If you look around there are too many talentless uneducated people succeeding in the world, a big chunk pimping themselves on Instagram and TikTok; I see Ken on his own YouTube channel, visiting pizza and burger joints, giving his rating ("Great meat between buns, two middle fingers up!"). 

Barbie wastes time on a subplot* involving Gloria (America Ferrera) and her daughter Sasha butting heads on the significance of the doll in their lives; meanwhile Ken arrives ahead of Barbie but his method of conquering Barbieland lacks verisimilitude: the Barbies have no defense hence are easily brainwashed into subservience. If you sat down and brainstormed you'd know what Ken's campaign would look like: assault rifles, nightsticks, riot shields, shackles, whips. Maybe a Barbie or three doing a striptease atop a bar, at gunpoint. 

*(Well not a total waste-- Gloria at one point delivers a heartfelt speech about how women are expected to live up to impossible standards, be role models and fight victimization and be all-around perfect at all times. For a moment Barbie is stunned at the honesty of the speech; then she decides this little gem should be used as a kind of mantra to break the Barbies out of their brainwashing. Unspoken: reduce the words into an incantation to free victims from their former cult, indoctrinate em into a new cult)

But of course Mattel is producing and after all is said and done Mattel has final say, not Gerwig or Baumbach. The writer-director team can always give the "we love the toy" excuse, but this only does their movie a disservice; this is basically Barbie's notion of shakeup and change, which when all is said and done isn't change at all but a clever sleight-of-hand. Barbie can't even bring herself to give Ken (or any of the other Kens or Barbies) a decent openmouthed kiss. 

If this movie has any lasting value I'd say it does Mike Pence the service of tearing him a new one, in the form of Ryan Gosling's uncanny impersonation. If the mannequinlike former vice president ever does run and posts a campaign video on social media, it would be a simple matter of appending the footage with a picture of Ken, preferably wearing something shocking bright, accompanied by the words "He has no penis." For this we thank you Mr. Gosling. 

Could Gerwig and Baumbach have done better? Well they could have made the movie without Mattel. Philip K. Dick's short story "The Days of Perky Pat," which he would later expand into The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (a novel Dick found 'frightening,' with Eldritch representing 'pure evil') is a Barbie pastiche outside of Mattel's control, and would have been perfect material for the filmmakers to adapt and take in any direction they wanted, preferably into scorched-earth territory. With the Kens in control I can see the Barbies conspiring to stage violent revolt; I see stainless-steel sickles held high and gleaming, ready to turn the beaches rosy with blood. 

 Meanwhile we have this: Barbie doing monstrous boxoffice, the critics deafening in their approval and applause. When you enter the eponymous word in the Google search field sparkles appear and your results turn pink-- perhaps the most sobering reminder of the reach of this endless commercial juggernaut. The world has become Barbie, the Aqua song running endlessly in one's ear; the masses grow quiescent as they await their true master, ready to step out from the shadows: Barbie, meet Pamela Eldritch. 

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