Thursday, July 27, 2023

Dolled Up: BARBIE

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a live-action cartoon philosophizing specifically about Barbie’s place in our culture, and gender performativity more broadly. In gleaming pink dollhouse sets against a painted sky, it is artifice in search of a truth. (Squint and you could call it Wes Anderson’s LEGO Movie.) It works, blending bright, sparkling silliness with clever ideas and even some moving earnest heart. That it manages to pull it off well is a post-modern two-step, setting up a dialectic—Barbie is a force for girlish fun and breezy empowerment versus Barbie as pernicious faux-feminist message in a materialistic patriarchal image—that’s somehow simultaneously criticism and advertisement. I’d like to hear how Barbie’s corporate owners let that happen. It’s both an obvious celebration of Barbie-land, and an overt problematization, a rich text that won’t stop explaining itself. The movie has characters flat out speak its ideas and debate their meaning, but it’s so nonstop funny and visually appealing that it rarely feels forced. We’re in a fizzy existential crisis for a movie that’s poppy and peppy and almost profound.

Gerwig opens the movie with gleaming fakery. After a 2001-style origin montage, which winkingly asserts the arrival of Barbie solved every girls’ real-world problems, we meet Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) living her Dream Life in her own little world. It’s a land full of Barbies—President Barbie, Doctor Barbie, and so on—who rule every profession, and their doting Kens who stand around and smile. (The well-cast world is populated with charmers putting on their best plastic grins.) Every day is a beach paradise, and every night is a dance party. But one night, during a bopping choreographed number to an original Dua Lipa song, she’s suddenly aware of her mortality. As her worry only escalates the next day, she’s informed by Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) that she should go to the Real World and find her owner to fix this. The resulting story makes the boundary between her world and ours porous, as her new understandings earned through fish-out-of-water interactions also get into the heads of her fellow Barbies and Kens. Ryan Gosling’s Ken is a particularly amusing vector of this confusion, as he gets hyped up on harmful real-world masculine stereotypes and turns from a purposeless accessory to an amped up parody of maleness. Other Barbie associates always seemed aware of their vestigial status, like real discontinued Ken friend Alan (Michael Cera), and the world-building is so loose and light that the very emptiness of these figures is the point.

While our world’s gender politics intrude on the oblivious Barbie’s consciousness, the movie introduces a real woman (America Ferrera) and her teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) who alternately reject and entertain the fantasy Barbie offers. Here’s that dialectic, as Gerwig’s broad screenplay pushes and pulls at the delights and the dangers of the Barbie society, and our own. The CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell) wants her back in the box, so to speak, but she’s starting to think she doesn’t like it there. The movie gives Robbie a deceptively complicated part to play—the perfect doll, then the plucky doubter, all while teasing out the slow crumbling of her facade. It’s strangely moving to see. We project so much, for good and ill, on this toy. To see Robbie bring a sense of interiority to the plastic ad-spread design is to see fifty years of feminism collapsing in on her. But there’s a bubblegum snap to the writing, co-scripted by Noah Baumbach, that never lets us forget the silliness of its construction. And there’s inventive filmmaking that continually reveals surprises in cartoony tableau and theatrical flourishes (even a climactic dream ballet), a sparkling, knowing campiness that melts into something genuine about purpose and connection and mothers and daughters and growing older. Gerwig, with Lady Bird and Little Women, made movies that glow with inner life, and here she finds that spark in plastic hearts. Or, to put it even more accurately, the spark is how those plastic people reflect and refract our own self-images. After all, who wants to be boxed in by other’s expectations?

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