Barbie review a gorgeously weird blockbuster event
It’s a unconfined shame that throughout the Barbie printing cycle, seemingly no one has asked Greta Gerwig well-nigh Marcel Proust. The multihyphenate is an avowed fan – there’s a throwaway joke well-nigh his (literally and figuratively) heavy work in Frances Ha, and in LWLies’ 2018 interview with her, she refers to the quasi-Proustian memory wits of making the semi-autobiographical Lady Bird.
In Barbie, her consumerist behemoth that brings America’s sweetheart out of the box and onto the screen, Proust once then makes an appearance, when Margot Robbie’s picture-perfect Stereotypical Barbie steps inside her plastic packaging, and remarks that the familiar smell is a Proustian memory. “Ugh, remember Proust Barbie?” Will Ferrell’s nameless Mattell CEO nods to his team of Yes Men. “That did not sell well.”
Perhaps this could be dismissed as flipside quirky joke, in a mucosa that moreover makes reference to The Snyder Cut and the universally minion BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, but given Gerwig’s history, it seems unlikely that Proust is a name she threw out there as a twee nod for all the Hot Literature Girls in the audience.
Instead, the reference speaks to the way in which Barbie – a hyper-corporate studio picture with the marketing upkeep to match – fits into the cinematic weltanschauung Gerwig has been thoughtfully curating, but moreover the strange, often disconcerting way in which the sublime (fine art, literature, classical music) sits slantingly the irrefutably corporate (blockbuster filmmaking, pop music, Barbie) in our modern world.
When it was spoken that Gerwig would co-write and uncontrived a live-action Barbie movie when in July 2021, many were sceptical well-nigh her transition from indie darling to the ultimate representation of sanitised capitalism. Even with universally well-liked actors Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling on board, how could Gerwig possibly maintain any originative integrity while working hand in hand with one of the biggest (and most litigious) toy companies on earth? A litany of set photos, teasing comments and one concerning New Yorker vendible have washed-up little to dampen enthusiasm or reassure sceptics. Would Greta Gerwig’s Barbie finger like a Greta Gerwig mucosa or a toy advert created by corporate committee? Perhaps a secret, stranger, third thing?
The mucosa opens with a scene that was heavily teased when in 2022, with a larger-than-life Barbie seeming as the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, while Helen Mirren explains in voice-over the history of dolls. It’s a taunting move, positioning something as unmistakably feminine as Barbie slantingly a mucosa widely regarded as one of The Greatest of All Time, but to be honest, Kubrick and Barbie have probably had a similarly vast cultural impact.
This introduction segues into a whistle-stop tour of Barbie history, in which we learn that the Barbies of Barbieland believe that their very existence has solved all problems of inequality and intolerance within The Real World. Cocooned in a pastel pink dreamland, Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) and all her friends have “the weightier day every day” – that is, until Stereotypical Barbie starts experiencing malfunctions, including unappetizing feet, bad breath, and overwhelming thoughts of dying.
But Barbie can’t die. So why can’t she stop thinking well-nigh death? A meeting with Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, Gerwig’s old higher friend, seeming as a doll who was “played with too hard”) reveals that there’s a link between Barbie and her ‘person’ in the real world, and in order to fix the rift, she’ll have to journey by car, plane, rocket ship, boat, snowmobile, campervan, tandem velocipede and rollerblade to Los Angeles, and make things right.
So Barbie sets off, with her trusty boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling, the most game he’s overly been) in tow, to track lanugo Gloria (America Ferrera) and her tween daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). But Barbie’s journey to the real world attracts the sustentation of Mattel’s corporate bods – an unrecognized group of men in suits who exist in a towers that replicates the grey offices of Jacques Tati’s Playtime – who immediately set out to put Barbie when in her place and restore order.
So far, so straightforward. Barbie sets itself up to be a fish-out-of-water story in the vain of Splash or Enchanted, but ends up a much stranger creation, as the doll becomes enlightened not only of reality, but of the myriad complications that come with it – supremely memories, emotions, and purpose. While Barbie reckons with her existence, Ken discovers patriarchy and likes what he sees.
What starts as a quest to restore order to Barbieland soon becomes a Battle of the Sexes, and while there is some questionable gender essentialism at play (one must be either a Barbie or a Ken, not any combination of the two, and in Barbieland, feminism seemingly never had any rationalization to move past the Second Wave) the mucosa succeeds much increasingly when it leans into its emotional cadre rather than when it tries to Do Feminism (a losing game for Barbie, which can rebrand as inclusive and self-deprecate until the cows come home, but ultimately remains part of a capitalist hellscape selling #empowerment and self-consciousness to kids).
The emotional cadre of the mucosa is pure Gerwig, though, hands linked to Little Women and Lady Bird in its viewing of the ways in which women relate to one another, particularly wideness generations and families. Although Gerwig wears her cinematic influences proudly, from The Truman Show and The Young Girls of Rochefort to All That Jazz and The Golddiggers of 1933, it moreover feels reminiscent of Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, in which Gerwig starred as a free-spirited photographer undergoing treatment for cervical cancer. That nostalgic but clear-eyed film, in turn, was made of memories, and in Barbie, for all its corporate sheen, you can see Gerwig’s fingerprints, whether it’s in the use of Indigo Girls and Matchbox 20, or a loving blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man.
Much has been made of the film’s large supporting cast, and although Issa Rae (President Barbie), Simu Liu (Ken), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Ken) and Michael Cera (Allan) are given the most to do outside of the principles, everyone is perfectly game and well-cast. Robbie and Gosling eschew any struggle at irony and embody the fantastic plastic that their roles require. Robbie is a splash of sunshine who moves with foible grace but still manages to hit emotional beats convincingly as she wrestles to understand what she was made for.
Gosling is her foil in many regards – wordy and exaggerated, a master of physical comedy, capable of creating spectacle from something as simple as a bicep flex. He sings, he dances, he peacocks virtually in a mink stratify without stuff inspired by a picture of Sylvester Stallone. When Barbie becomes increasingly increasingly self-aware, Ken becomes the opposite, as he struggles to envision himself as a separate entity from the doll he was created to serve.
This is the human struggle – to work out who we are, underneath it all. If we are not our job, our house, our possessions, our relationships, or, as Ken suggests, “beach”, who are we? In Proust’s seminal ‘In Search of Lost Time’ – the novel from which the concept of the Proustian memory emerged, through the mention of a tea-soaked madeleine – the writer grapples with the inevitable passage of time and fading of memories.
To be human is to winnow (and perhaps, at times, urgently fight against) this irony: the increasingly memories we accrue, the less we remember of them. The older we get, perhaps the increasingly we realise we don’t know. Barbie is, versus the odds, a mucosa well-nigh what a joy it is to create those memories to uncork with. To spend time with loved ones, to play with toys and lose ourselves to imagination; to find friends, to have parties, to exist on our own terms. To remember all the love, and the loss, and the strange, agonisingly short wits of stuff alive.
It’s not perfect, but as Ferrera’s weft remarks, “If you can’t make it perfect, you can at least make it better.” Gerwig’s filmmaking enriches our world, hostage and joyous and thoughtful. Even under the guise of a piece of massive IP, she maintains that spirit where others have failed. While some will inevitably miss the intimacy of her past work, Barbie proves Gerwig’s strengths as an versifier are as workable to big-budget, grand-scale filmmaking as they are the small ambitions of her mumblecore years and past two solo efforts. She shares so much of herself and personality, there’s a creative spark that it’s nonflexible to deny.
It’s a shame that Gerwig, and so many other talented filmmakers, are rarely given the resources to produce art with such ambition, and I highly doubt studios will learn the right lessons from a mucosa like Barbie, should it meet or exceed its lofty box office expectations (namely, they will seem that it’s the IP audiences love, rather than the ambitious, individual storytelling). But like Barbie, I suppose I haven’t given up hope yet.
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In Greta we trust. 4
Bigger, zanier, and stranger than expected. 5
Has a few rough edges, but Gerwig continues to flit to her own beat. 4
Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Emma Mackey, Hari Nef, Michael Cera
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