"...has great visuals, the script is not quite as impressive"

Best Looking (not the best) Film of the Year

(122123) “You know I’m artificial. Don’t put the blame on me. I was reared with appliances in a consumer society,”  These great lines which were in a song by the punk band, X Ray Spex explore the same exact themes as the Barbie film and it raises some of the same questions about the construction of female identity in our society and capitalism. Like the subject/narrator of the song, Barbie is initially shallow, but she realizes the fact, and she eventually she shows a capacity for growth and reinvention. But the movie is contradictory because it criticizes the commoditization of female beauty at the same time it exploits the doll with a perfect body image. If traditional Barbie with her perfect appearance is so bad for female self-esteem, then should we really be seeing a movie that celebrates her? The traditionally attractive Margo Robbie’s face and body are still being used to sell the film.

Barbie is a phenomenally successful fantasy film based on a Mattel toy doll which unexpectedly shattered many box office records. The film has generated over 1.4 billion dollars in revenue, and it has gone on to be the biggest grossing film of the year. I also would not be surprised if it got some Oscar nominations especially in the technical categories, but as much as I like it, I don’t think it has enough depth to deserve a Best Picture nomination.

The film was directed by Greta Gerwig who is a fine Indy film actress (see Greenberg and Frances Ha). She is also a talented film maker who directed the delightful Lady Bird (2012) and the sophisticated Little Women (2019) both of which received Oscar nominations and places on many critics’ top ten lists (I don’t think Barbie ever rises to that level). And the script was co-written by her and her husband-fellow Indy great, Noam Baumbach, who is known for doing The Squid and the Whale (2016), and Marriage Story (2019).

Barbie is a fine vehicle for the comedic talents of Margot Robbie who makes a perfect Barbie (to distinguish her from the other dolls in the film I will call her stereotypical Barbie), although the script makes her jump back and forth from being an idiot to a near genius. Robbie starred as Harley Quinn in three films (two Suicide Squad films and
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey), but her best work was in I Tonya (2006), Bombshell (2022) and the underrated Babylon (2022). She also was surprisingly memorable in small roles in the male centered Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). She has been in a few mediocre films, but she has never, to my knowledge, been bad in a film and her mere presence was enough to elevate some blah films (like the first Suicide Squad).

Barbie succeeds in creating a totally believable fictional fantasy universe and it has top notch set design, cinematography, and costumes. Much of the credit must go with the brilliant Mexican born, Robert Prieto who is best known for his great work in Alejandro Gonzales’s Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). It is largely because of his efforts that Barbie is a runner up for the title (along with Asteroid City) of best-looking film of the year. In its own way Barbi’s fictional house is impressive as the home in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the factory in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But although Barbie has great visuals, the script is not quite as impressive, and it has a muddled political message and unsatisfying ending.

The film attempts to make us question traditional notions of beauty, look-ism and body image (one-character calls stereotypical Barbie a bimbo and a menace to feminism), but it doesn’t really do much to challenge them. We’re supposed to see the body image ideal of Robbie’s Barbie as unrealistic and unhealthy, yet all the ethnic characters (like the one played by America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt) and the weird, quirky girl (played by SNL graduate Kate McKinnon which don’t fulfill the traditional requirements of female beauty are still regulated to the sidelines as sidekicks. Also, should a film get points just for addressing a problem in representation at the same time it does nothing to change it?

One of the film’s early shots depicts a rather heavy-handed and obvious parody of 2001; A Space Odyssey which instead of depicting the first murder with a bone as a weapon shows a bunch of girls destroying their baby dolls and in doing so rebelling against the notion of motherhood or at least the limited options available for women of the time. Well, that’s my take anyway. In a Helen Mirren voice over, we are told that the development of Barbie allowed for more options in terms of role models (such as Barbie President and Barbie Astronaut.)

The film is a meta movie (like Pleasantville or The Truman Show although not as brilliant) which comments on and satirizes aspects of fictional tropes (especially the worlds girls construct in their imaginations for Barbie) as well as gender stereotypes, The film begins in a meta-fictional town of Barbie land which satirizes the artificial perfect world of the fictional Barbie. In this world females are the center of everything (as stereotypical Barbie says the Kens are superfluous) and it shows the limitations of this kind of existence. Like real Barbie's they drink from cups with no liquid, and they lack certain real female body parts like vaginas.

Things are not as perfect as they seem and it becomes apparent that Stereotypical Barbie and her owner have a symbiotic relationship when the negative feeling of her unknown owner begins to bleed into the doll, and the stereotypical Barbie suddenly gains a fear of death. She runs off with Ken as a stowaway and goes on a journey of self-discovery to see what lies behind her limited world view.

She consults with a weird Barbie (played well by Kate McKinnon who allegedly based her character on David Bowie) with a punky short haircut and face tattoos (She is sour and damaged because she was played with too hard.) She is the one who sends stereotypical Barbie on a quest to find her owners and if she helps them overcome their negative feelings, she might help herself.

Stereotypical Barbie soon meets two minority doll owners (a mom and daughter played by America Ferrara and Ariana Greenblatt) who both have self-esteem problems which may have been exasperated by the too perfect Barbie doll ideal of physical beauty. The mom (ironically) is a Mattel salesman who is neglected and discriminated against by her fake feminist employer, the CEO of the company (played by Will Ferrell.).

In Dostoevsky’s Dreams of a Ridiculous Man there is an apparently perfect world which is ruined because a real flawed person from our world enters it and corrupts it. Something similar happens here after Ken gets out into the real-world, Gosling’s Ken discovers the idea of patriarchy, and it sounds pretty good to him, so he brings it back to Barbie-land. With the help of the other Ken's (who are all "himbo's") he sets up a male dominated society before Barbie gets back. In this male utopia (which is a dystopia for females) men lounge around in white clothes while beautiful women serve them at all hours.

The big conflict occurs when Barbie must race back to the Barbie-verse and then decide whether to do back to her feminist mock utopia or find some halfway measure that will please both genders. But in order for her plan to work every male Ken has to be extremely ignorant (Or are they just satirizing males as they are seen in the doll world?) And the only male who is not a complete moron is the effeminate and presumably queer Michael Sera, In the end, the film is far better at raising questions about gender or challenging patriarchy than actually offering solutions.

Hollywood has been learning the wrong lessons from the film since it's premiere this summer. The film did  really well at the box office not just because of marketing but also because the film feels fresh in its approach to a female subject. That and and there is a huge amount of inventiveness involved in it. But instead of offering us more fresh films that are a bit different or female centered films, Hollywood execs have decided that what we need more are many more films that exploit toy brands. They have already green-lit Hot Wheels (produced by J. J. Abrams), American Girl, Rock Em, Sock Em Robots, and ten or so other toy-based films. Looking ahead it may turn out that video game-based films may no longer be the worst genre.

You would think with married male and female screenplay writers you would end up with a film in which men and women can actually get along in harmony and equality, but this really doesn’t happen. Like many modern films the film seems to imply that the peaceful and equal coexistence of males and females is difficult or nearly impossible. Although the film is quite dazzling to the eye it is more style than substance. This is a good movie worth checking out but not a deep groundbreaking masterpiece.

I know the film struck a huge chord and hit part of a zeitgeist, pleasing a huge young female demographic. Also, it was astonishing how good the film was considering it was based on a toy. But I found it more successful as a piece of entertainment and eye candy (and it does look marvelous) than as a social commentary or political treatise.

Directed by:    Greta Gerwig
Written by:    Screenplay by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach
Starring:    Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera
Released:    7/21/2023 (USA)
Length:    114 minutes
Rating:    PG13 for brief language and some suggestive
Available On:    At press time this was available on Max streaming

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