Barbie is a bit of bizarre fun that doesn’t quite live up to the hype

Barbie is a bit of bizarre fun that doesn’t quite live up to the hype

There’s no denying that Greta Gerwig is a genius. There’s no denying that Noah Baumbach is a genius. There’s no denying that there’s something inherently brilliant about simultaneously embracing and subverting the concept of Barbie, warts and all, and doing so with Mattel’s full support. So why is it that Barbie, after months of promising hype, feels disappointingly basic?

The direction is top-notch, the production design is next level, and the performances are fantastic across the board. Yet despite all of the incredible aspects of this truly bizarre and unlikely film, the overall product is marred heavily by a didactic script that, short of a few contemporary buzzwords, feels like it was written twenty years ago. Granted, this is partially due to the fact that the patriarchal roots of our society have proven brutally tenacious, but it’s also due to the fact that this script, as well-intentioned as its message may be, fails to synthesize its themes into workable material, instead choosing to exposit its intentions so literally that the characters might as well be talking directly into the camera.

This, of course, isn’t to say that Barbie is a bad movie, just that it’s nowhere near as subversive or clever as it should be. Still, it’s just weird enough that it doesn’t fail to entertain and provides enough instances of clever humor and moving drama to be worth plunking down some green for a ticket to Barbenheimer weekend.

Barbie (Margot Robbie) wakes up every morning to the best day ever. She and her friends, all Barbies, run the entirety of Barbieland. They can do anything, be anything, and have whatever they want. Every night is girl’s night at Barbie’s house, where she and her friends don fashionable pajamas and hang out after a joyous evening of choreographed dancing at the club (which I imagine is based on a real playset). Midge is not invited to the sleepover. She is pregnant and was discontinued. Ken (Ryan Gosling) is also not invited, nor is Ken (Simu Liu). But just as long as Barbie gives Ken a little attention, he’s good.

One day, apropos of nothing, Barbie has intrusive thoughts of death. Then she notices some cellulite on her thigh. Then her perfect little feet start to lie flat on the ground rather than tip-toed in such a way as to fit naturally into high heels. Why is this? Because her owner in the real world has lost some of her Barbie magic. Per the local oracle, which comes in the form of “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), a doll that has been on the receiving end of too many haircuts and a crayon-based makeup job from her more aggressive owner, our Barbie must venture into the real world and inspire her owner to feel the love once again. Unfortunately, Ken tags along on her trip and becomes enamored with the real world’s male-centric society. There’s not much by way of explanation as per the degree to which the Barbies and Kens are aware of their…dollness, but that’s okay. It all works better if you just accept the strange reality in which this tale occurs. It’s not meant to be thought about too deeply.

What follows is two hours of this idea (Barbieland is for women, the real world is for men, and neither realm is ideal as a result) being explained over and over and over again, well-beyond the sketch-length narrative that would much better suit the material. When the comedy is good, it’s great. There are more than a few gut-busters that take this bizarre concept and run with it in surprising ways. But for every transcendent piece of humor, there are ten gags that don’t register. Much of the comedic structure comes in the form of characters literally explaining the joke, or doing that thing where they incredulously describe their own circumstances and try to pass it off as a joke. So much of it feels — and forgive me for this term — Joss Whedony. This is not necessarily a bad thing at its core, but it sure leaves the film feeling stale. This is doubly true when you consider the fact that the screenwriters, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, are legitimately brilliant artists. If anyone could take this concept and make it sing at feature length, it’s them. Unfortunately, as it is, this film burns its jokes and themes long before the film’s midpoint, giving the remainder a feeling of missed opportunity. A charitable read would be to say that the concept simply can’t justify a feature length. A less charitable read would be to say that its critic-proof nature kept it a few rewrites short of reaching its potential. An accurate read would say it’s a little of both.

Even so, there’s a lot to like here, and it’s more than worth your time to do the already legendary Barbenheimer double feature. The fact of the matter is that Gerwig is doing a big flex here, and mostly nailing it in all departments. It’s important to celebrate movies that have the temerity to just be weird — and it’s affirming to see Mattel support a film that is not uncritical of the corporate nature of the Barbie business. Barbie ultimately lands in a great place in this regard: it recognizes that the Barbie doll, as corporatized as its legacy has become, was borne of a groundbreaking progressive mindset. Barbie might have made ungodly sums of money for soulless suits, but she also changed what a doll could be, while showing young girls all over the world that they could be so much more than a second-class citizen. They can dream big, live big, and be whatever kind of woman they wish to be. The duality of the Barbie doll business is reflected in the depiction of Barbieland vs the real world: The best world isn’t one that is dominated by a single gender, but rather one that allows all genders, and all expressions of gender, the opportunity to thrive without judgment.

And also the opportunity to make ungodly sums of money.

Directed by Greta Gerwig

Written by Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach

Starring Margot Robbie, Issa Rae, Alexandra Shipp, Ryan Gosling

Rated PG-13, 114 minutes

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