thu 25/07/2024

Barbie review - uneasy blend of farce and feminism | reviews, news & interviews

Barbie review - uneasy blend of farce and feminism

Barbie review - uneasy blend of farce and feminism

Greta Gerwig's Barbieland comes with muddled kitsch baggage

In the pink: Ryan Gosling and Margot RobbieWarner Bros.

The prologue to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie augurs well. A gaggle of young girls in a rocky desert are playing with doll-babies while enacting the mind-numbing drudgery of the early 20th century housewife. Then a new godhead arrives, a giant pretty blonde whose stilettoed feet turn slightly inwards. The girls go into a frenzy of old-doll-smashing, Also Sprach Zarathustra swells up and one girl throws her doll high in the air.

But that’s more or less it for the oldster cinephiles in the audience. Still to come is a “Proust Barbie”, plus chatter about cognitive dissonance and existentialism, as you might expect from director Gerwig and her co-writer Noah Baumbach, more indie than Barbie people. Essentially, though, this is a film for the twentysomethings taking selfies of themselves saying “Hi, Ken!” who were sitting all around me at my screening, squealing at every pop culture reference and dopey moment.

To be fair, it’s intermittently funny, with visual gags about Barbie’s feet being permanently arched in the shape of her impossibly tall high heels, or all the food and drink in her perfect world being invisible. There’s also some fine physical comedy when Margot Robbie’s Barbie rolls over awkwardly with her legs stiffly extended just like a doll’s; and Ryan Gosling seems to be having fun as dumb peroxided Ken, especially in the cheesy dance sequences and the section where he sings a poor-me country-rock ballad to Barbie – for four hours.

Comedy is intermittently sparked by the pair's encounters with Real World people, who naturally find them ridiculous

But there’s a limit to what you can poke fun at in Barbieland without repeating yourself. After the first 15 minutes of Barbies partying and screaming, the film understandably feels the need for a plot, one that will take Barbie and Ken into the Real World (their capital letters). Well, Los Angeles, anyway. Odd new thoughts have been creeping over Barbie, about ... gasp … dying. She decides to find her Real-World owner and establish why. (Barbies still sell at the rate of two per second somewhere around the globe, so you think, good luck with that.) 

Barbie and Ken set off in her engineless pink sports car through vistas not unlike Asteroid City’s and end up in Venice Beach, CA, where Ken feels right at home. It’s what he does, "beach", which here, amusingly, becomes an abstract noun as well as a verb, as in “beach off”, meaning “to get the better of another Ken”. (Was I the only person who at first misheard this as “beat off”?) 

Comedy is intermittently sparked by the pair's encounters with Real World people, who naturally find them ridiculous. One belligerent schoolgirl, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), spells out for Barbie her negative role in suppressing feminism and fuelling rampant consumerism, while Barbie naively protests that Barbieland is a women’s paradise, run by women, for women (a regular defence of all things Barbie).

Sasha, as is the way with anything-goes fantasy-film plotting, happens to be the daughter of Gloria (America Ferrera), who happens to work on reception at Barbie manufacturer Mattel’s HQ nearby. Gloria doodles Barbies with irrepressible thoughts of death and cellulite in her spare time. And yes, she secretly kept one Barbie when Sasha was throwing out her old toys.

These two flee the Men from Mattel, who have tried, literally, to put Barbie back in her box, and return with her to Barbieland, where Gosling-Ken – all Barbieland men are called Ken, except for lone Allan, sweetly played by Michael Cera – has fomented rebellion, tired of being taken for granted by Barbie, even though neither of them has a clue what to do when they’re alone or has the genitalia to do it with. Ken has, implausibly, returned with Real-World books promoting the patriarchy and thinks it sounds kinda neat. Kate McKinnon in BarbieSo, in the funniest section of the film, he establishes the Kendom, where the horse is worshipped, though there are no animals there other than the toy turd-dropping dog owned by Weird Barbie (a standout turn from Kate McKinnon, pictured above). The Kens become slobs, the Barbies drudges and bimbos.  

Luckily, Gloria and Sasha can instruct the Barbies in how to fight the forces of the Kendom. Gloria also gets to give the keynote speech to Barbie about the complexities and paradoxes of being a successful human woman. Her message feels oddly quaint, though possibly less so to a younger crowd? Ferrera (Ugly Betty) is not the only messager in the film, alas, which also features a pert but too random Narrator (Helen Mirren), who soon disappears, and Rhea Perlman (Cheers) as a wise old lady Barbie meets in the Mattel building. (Hit TV shows have supplied many of the cast, from Issa Rea (Insecure) to Jamie Demetriou (Stath Sells Flats) and what feels like half the Sex Education line-up. And Rob Bryden, or did my brain, feverish from so much plastic-pinkness, imagine that?)

The involvement of Mattel in the production is hard to fathom. The toy manufacturer has been selling off the screen rights to its toys to willing producers as film “characters”. Barbie is just the first. Gerwig has depicted the Men from Mattel as an oafish bunch of suits who talk in unison, led by a standard-issue Will Ferrell, one of several digs at Mattel in the script. Did the company sanction them in the hope of being seen as good sports, willing to be the butt of jokes? Margot Robbie and cast in BarbieBy the end Robbie is oddly touching, increasingly conflicted as her feet grow flatter (pictured above) and she becomes more “human”, but she is surrounded by too much messy messaging and kitsch baggage – most of it pink – for the film to sustain a coherent shape. It’s neither a full-on farce nor a sharp feminist takedown, but a weird amalgam of the two that tries to wear its intellectual colours lightly. Barbie at one point marvels at the sophisticated sentence that has just come out of her mouth. You suspect that’s Gerwig reminding her fans she’s still in there, but sadly it’s not quite enough to make her film really fly.

Barbie and Ken don't have a clue what to do when alone, or the genitalia to do it with


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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