- Movie Rating -

Barbie (2023)

| July 25, 2023

For me, the single funniest moment in Barbie happens in the first three minutes – a hilarious parody of the “Dawn of Man” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey featuring little girls whose choice of dolls have only ever been baby dolls.  Into their midst comes a 50-foot monolith in the shape of a babelicious blonde; an image that is so evolutionary that it compels these girls to hurl their plastic infants into the air.  All this to the accompaniment of Strauss’ “Also Spake Zarathustra,” a call to humanity’s will to power and eternal recurrence.  Believe it or not, all of those themes are in this movie – wrapped in plastic, it’s fantastic.

From that, it is obvious that Barbie is a much smarter movie than you might expect.  Or, put it another way, it’s a much smarter movie than it has any reason to be.  This could have been a dull, crass piece of marketing without a brain in its head, and you might understand.  How much mileage can you get from the story of a plastic doll experiencing an existential crisis?

Director Greta Gerwig and her co-screenwriter (and partner) Noah Baumbach have made a movie that isn’t exactly a comedy classic, but they’ve made a movie that at the very least shows that they were thinking.  Yeah, there is a significant distance between the times that I laughed and there are too many messages on the table, but there is an effort here that is really admirable.

Barbie is played here by Margot Robbie, Hollywood’s daffy blonde du jour, who lives in her three-color plastic world of perfect perfection.  She wakes up in her plastic bed, takes a shower with no water, drinks from a coffee cup with no coffee and never has to take the stairs – she just floats down.  Every day is pleasant and sun-shiny and every evening is a seemingly endless dance party.  Barbie always looks great.  Her make-up is perfect.  Her hair is perfect.  Her ever-changing wardrobe is perfect.  And her dance moves are flawless too.

Barbie’s world has no problems, no cloudy days, and best of all, women are in charge.  Barbie Land is populated by other Barbies of all shapes, sizes, races, and job descriptions.  The men of Barbie Land – all Kens – get to hang out at the beach and look pretty.  This includes a sort-of Ken-Prime (Ryan Gosling) whose entire worth is based on how Barbie feels about him at any given moment.

What is stunning is the pop-art set-design by six-time Academy Award nominee Sarah Greenwood (who might win for this one).  You feel that the actors really are inside of a plastic playset whether in Barbie’s Dream House or down at the beach with its frozen blue crystal waves.

The story kicks off when, in the midst of a dance number, Barbie experiences an existential crisis – perhaps THE existential crisis: What is the nature of death?  Neither she, nor anyone else in Barbie Land have ever had such a thought but it plagues our plastic heroine and so does the sudden appearance of – gasp! – cellulite!  To understand these issues, Barbie has to consult Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a doll who suffers the trauma of having been played with too hard.  The mission is pretty obvious: in order to find the root of these problems, she has to venture to the real world in order to find her owner.

Into the real world she goes, accompanied by Ken to find her owner and her purpose.  The real world isn’t necessarily the real world.  It’s more of a heightened reality that meets Barbie and Ken halfway.  It’s also opposite of Barbie Land in that men are in charge and women sit on the sidelines.  This gives Ken a sense of the patriarchy which goes, dangerously, to his head.  It also puts Barbie at odds with the executive board at Mattel which is made up (we’re not surprised) of older men led by Will Ferrell.

The look of the film is extraordinary, but I fear that what will get lost are the nuances of Robbie’s performance.  She has a subtle way of moving, a way of carrying herself that never forgets that she is a doll.  At first, it’s very wooden, but as she understands herself and her own mind, her movements begin to loosen up.  It’s really a dedicated performance that I admired very much.

What I didn’t admire as much was the third act.  What happens would take a long while to explain, and spoilers are abound.  I’ll just say that the screenplay gets Barbie into a crisis that takes a very long time to get back out.  There are a lot of subplots, and a lot of characters to iron out and far too many messages that have to be imparted.  The movie literally stops dead for five minutes so that Barbie’s owner (America Ferrera) can explain the difficulties of being a woman in our modern society.  Truth be told, Diana Prince did this much better on “She-Hulk” and in less time.

I smiled more than I laughed at Barbie.  I admired its girl-power message, it’s energy and its style.  I also appreciate the timing, dropping on the exact same day as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – never have the sublime and the ridiculous occupied the same space with such humorous response from the public (we need it).  Yet, I wasn’t as engaged as I thought I might have been.  There are far too many lulls and the serious moments get laid on pretty thick. The ending monologue takes forever to get through although the movie lands on a final joke that I wanted to applaud.  Never-the-less it was preceded by least six endings wherein there was hardly a joke among them.  Of the ones that hit home however, was an observation that men spend far too much time analyzing and theorizing about The Godfather.  I resemble that.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy