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Barbie (A Movie Review)

BARBIE (2023)

Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell,Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Sharon Rooney, Dua Lipa, Nicola Coughlan, Ana Cruz Kayne, Ritu Arya, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, Scott Evans, Ncuti Gatwa, John Cena, Michael Cera, Ariana Greenblatt, Jamie Demetriou, Connor Swindells, Emerald Fennell, Ann Roth, Annie Mumolo, Marisa Abela and the voice of Helen Mirren.

Screenplay by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach.

Directed by Greta Gerwig.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Seeing Barbie hot on the heels of Oppenheimer, I have to admit I have a bit of whiplash. Not that both aren’t fine films (although Oppenheimer is the better of the two), but still I can’t imagine two more polar opposite potential blockbusters being released on the same weekend. In fact, the two are so wildly different while going against each other that the media has taken to referring to this as the “Barbenheimer” weekend.

It even makes a certain amount of business sense – talk about counter-programming – but after the deep, intense, depressing browns and moral ambivalence of Oppenheimer, the wild, hot pink, positive, surreal girl power celebration of Barbie is a bit of a shock to the system. And it’s a damned good movie, at least until 2/3 of the way into the screentime when the idea slightly gets away from director Greta Gerwig and her co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach. The overcooked ending doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but the movie ends up not quite sticking the landing – just like Ken. (You’ll understand that joke when you see the movie.)

Barbie is still a very fun movie, but the first hour or so was so much more than just that.

The movie’s finest point is the brilliant, spot-on casting of Margot Robbie in the plastic shoes and dream house of America’s favorite doll. Robbie captures the perky and perfect representation of Barbie’s “stereotypical” beauty and the sweet, naïve hopefulness of the character of a woman who never has had to experience change or conflict. She is perfect in the role. I’m not sure if anyone could have captured the play toy better.

Which does not mean that Barbie is not allowed her own complexities, in fact that’s the whole point of the film. What happens when during a perfect fantasy life doubts and flaws start to intrude? What if she starts thinking of death, stops standing on her tiptoes and even (gasp!) starts showing the first early signs of cellulite?

What if she has to leave Barbieland and go to the real world to find out what exactly is happening to her, only to find out that reality is nothing like she imagined? And what if she is followed by Ken (Ryan Gosling), her needy, friend-zoned “boyfriend” who is seduced by the toxic masculinity of the authentic world (in this case played by Los Angeles)? And how will “real people” react to two walking, talking representations of outdated childhood fantasy?

It's a terrific fish-out-of-water premise. The early scenes in Barbieland, as well as the section when Barbie and Ken try to figure out the very alien areas like Century City and Venice Beach are bright, fast and funny.

Then the film starts to spin out a bit, like Gerwig and Baumbach have painted themselves into a corner that they are not sure how to navigate. The later sections of Barbie lose some of the earlier scenes’ spark, getting both slightly ridiculous and at the same time just a tiny bit sappy. And honestly, the later scenes are not nearly as funny as the earlier ones.

Barbie is sometimes a little heavy-handed in the use of older music to make plot points – the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” is used repeatedly as an anthem of female empowerment while Matchbox 20’s “Push” is used a few times to signal male aggression – but then again nothing in this film is meant to be in any way subtle. On the plus side, Aqua’s 1990s novelty hit “Barbie Girl” only briefly shows up here in the end credits, and only used as a sample in different song.

Still, even though Barbie does not quite achieve the effortless perfection of Barbieland (or even the effortless perfection of Robbie’s performance), it is still mostly a sweet, fun and funny ride. And America Ferrera’s monologue about the responsibilities of being a woman in the modern world is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: July 22, 2023.


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