Wednesday 2 August 2023

It's a doll revolution: "Barbie"

As better placed observers than this joyless wretch have already noted, Greta Gerwig's
Barbie is a good deal of fun. What need concern us here is what kind of fun it is - and whether it's the kind of fun that will endure beyond this initial, practically surfable wave of enthusiasm. (That has been stoked in large part by one of the most all-pervasive marketing campaigns in recent memory. It almost comes as a relief that, in a moment of widespread and near-terminal dysfunction, Hollywood has remembered how to sell a movie again.) Clearly - and inarguably - Barbie is summer fun, and after a decade-and-a-half of dourly self-involved MCU domination, audiences have been tempted back into multiplexes at the height of blockbuster season by something that resembles a well-timbered, attentively painted barrel of laughs. (I'll get to Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer in due course, and with an appropriate level of haste and enthusiasm.) Though Gerwig's film opens with a familiar corporate logo (Mattel this time, not Marvel), it replaces torturous worldbuilding with playful craft and imagination, unfolding on vast, eyepopping, built-for-real sets (with secondary green screen) that must have been enormous fun to run, dance and clown around on. 

This architecture recalls certain Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis constructions, and bears witness to the overarching effort on Gerwig's part to build a world not with words but luminous images. From the finer detail of Barbieland to the dizzying corporate corridors Margot Robbie's heroine escapes into, appreciable, top-level craft - which is another way of saying care - has been expended on the film's physical framework. It gets filled giddily, and a little sloppily. What presents as a barrel of laughs is revealed, scene by scene, as a sparkly spittoon into which Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach have tossed sometimes complementary, sometimes competing ideas, images, attitudes, funny people and a few of everybody's favourite things, plus dollops of feminist theory, weirdly sticky strains of sap, memeable celebrity cameos, an existential crisis that derives as much from the film's makers as from Barbie herself, in-jokes, nods and back references, and yes, somewhere in the midst of it, a sales pitch, too. This is, in short, complicated fun - far more complicated than we had any right to expect from a live-action Barbie movie, and I'm tempted to say the screenplay could have done with at least one more pass while everyone was waiting for the Dream House to go up, just to try and clarify some important Barbie points of order.

The film before us is busy having all-encompassing fun. Non-MCU though it is (and defines itself as being), Barbie owes a certain debt to the multiverse school of thought: narratively, it's a kind of Everything Everywhere All in Pink, charting this Barbie's passage from the perfection of Barbieland (where girls rule and Kens drool) to the imperfection of real-world L.A. (with its casual chauvinism and cuckoo beauty standards) in a way that expands upon the final movement of the peerlessly postmodern The Lego Movie. (Gerwig redeploys Will Ferrell as the Mattel CEO obliged to track down his errant creation, surrounded by yes men, and seen piloting a Goodies-style 12-man tandem at one particularly inspired juncture.) Given that they represent about the whitest celebrity couple de nos jours, Gerwig and Baumbach have been savvy about opening up this world to a wider audience. Barbieland houses multiple Barbies in a variety of stripes and shades, and a scene in which Robbie's so-called Stereotypical Barbie encounters a dinerful of sullen schoolgirl refuseniks, lambasting what Barbie now represents, raises the issue of how any creative might approach this toy at a point when its reputation requires some measure of rehabilitation. Here, the film has its cake and eats it; elsewhere, Gerwig and Baumbach bake another, and another, and another, and encourage us to get a sugar high off the frosting.

When a Mattel minion (Connor Swindells, among the half of the Sex Education cast ported across in this direction to secure the teen vote) asks the suits an either/or question about Barbieland, the 12-man answer comes back in Dolby surround: "YES". That generalised affirmation appears to be what Gerwig and Baumbach were going for here - and I suspect it's that which got Barbie's wilder swings past the Mattel board, and which has drawn cinemagoers in after long years of unremitting negatives. Gerwig embraces Barbie for her Everywoman status (dress her up to be whoever you want her to be!), and knows she doesn't have to be too specific about what she's saying so long as she's giving us a good time. Specificity is the business of three-hour Christopher Nolan movies that get dissected at comparably deadening length by humourless pedant film bros; Barbie, by contrast, keeps it light and non-prescriptive. As far as this Ken could make out, the film's message is that, like Barbie, feminism itself is whatever you want it to be. To pluck one example at random, it could mean filming Louisa May Alcott one minute, making a movie based on a children's toy for your next, and then taking Netflix money to put us all through bloody Narnia again. Anything goes; whatever works; don't be a Ken about these things.

Modern studio movies have held far more objectionable beliefs, all told, but I wondered whether Barbie wasn't finally too zappy, too daffy, too all over the place to make its most sincere material stick; whether this might be another billion-dollar movie that proves to be here-today-gone-tomorrow fun. When Gerwig's film pops, it really pops: it hits upon a rich seam of comic material after the movie's Ken-in-chief (Ryan Gosling), empowered by the same real world that stuck us with Andrew Tate, rechristens the Dream House the Mojo Dojo Casa House, shipping in mini-fridges, monster trucks, submissive Barbies and (an especially choice touch, this) huge vats of whey powder. For a few cherishable minutes, an expensive event movie based on a child's toy rubs satirically against the absurdly reductive discourse that has sprung up around matters of gender. Equally, though, there are jokes that don't quite land as they should. Having Ken play the guitar at - rather than for - Barbie would be funnier had Gerwig chosen a song that meant a thing outside the US. (She went with Matchbox 20's "Push", which I'm told stormed the UK Top 39 at number 38.) And I'm willing to lay good money that the punchline Barbie eventually arrives at will seem as odd to viewers in 2050 as all Back to the Future's Marty-fucks-his-mom stuff looks to us today. If this film were an emoji - and there are places where it's not a million miles away from being a series of emoji - it would be a glittery variant of the palms-raised shrugger. Anything goes; whatever works; best not to be a Ken about these things.

I sensed the three-quarters-full house I watched the film with looking on with a kind of quietly amused bafflement, and I began to wonder whether that was the reason for the film's colossal success - that Gerwig had fashioned such an enjoyable muddle that folks have been going back to Barbie two or three times, the better to settle into its very online, fifteen-Tweets-a-minute rhythms and figure out what - if anything - was actually being conveyed. In some way, that would be encouraging: much as under-deodorised boys returned to Inception and Tenet to mull Nolan's virtuosity, it would mean there's now a crowd prepared to try and decipher a film that sets itself the near-impossible challenge of speaking for every woman simultaneously. (Crack the code to learn what women really want.) And even the semiotic messiness is inextricable from one of the film's pleasures (joys?), which is that this is recognisably a film made by artists rather than algorithms, a fact borne out in Gerwig's unfailingly generous close-ups of every last Barbie and Ken (and Allan). The pick of them, inevitably, go to Robbie, giving a masterclass in troubled airheadedness only a whipsmart performer could pull off; Gosling has to make do with stealing the backs and sides of his scenes around her. The dysfunction plaguing the studio system is such that Warner Bros' first response to Barbie's success was not to announce more movies starring these two or featuring the many other talents involved, but a further raft of films inspired by the Mattel back catalogue. They really are Kens, which is one reason Barbie seems unlikely to change the filmmaking landscape, much less the world, for the better. But the film is fun - or at least fun enough to make even a joyless wretch like me chuckle at regular intervals in the middle of this greyest and most miserable of summers.

Barbie is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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