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Barbie

Year: 2023
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig/Noah Baumbach
Cast: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Kate MacKinnon, Michael Cera, John Cena, issa Rae, Emerald America Ferrara, Fennell, Rhea Pearlman, Helen Mirren, Will Ferrell, Annie Mumble

In future ages we'll remember a strange phenomenon from 2023, when two films that couldn't be more different from each other captured the zeitgeist and belonged together to the extent they created a movement that had its own name (not to mention a million clever memes) ; Barbenheimer.

Partly it was the exuberant excitement about cinema again. After the long dark night of the COVID pandemic when few movies broke through (not even Chris Nolan's previous attempt Tenet had made nearly as much as expected) we'd forgotten what cultural events movies could be, and suddenly we were excited about two of them at once.

So how ironic it was that, being such an avid moviegoer, I didn't like either one of them. After Oppenheimer was such a disappointment I was looking forward to everything that propelled this movie to a billion dollars at the box office and officially made indie darling Greta Gerwig a blockbuster director.

All of which made me ask myself in even stronger terms when it was over; wtf?

On the surface it's a mainstream fish out water comedy as Barbie (Margot Robbie) travels from Barbieland, where everything's as gilded, happy, carefree and female-friendly as girls all over the world imagine, to the real world where sexism and selfishness are very much still in abundance.

The theme is that Barbies aren't allowed out of Barbieland, so when the powers that be at Mattel (all white man, in the first satire about gender relations Gerwig and scriptwriter, husband Noah Baumbach, make) realise there's one loose in Los Angeles, they all go after her to send her back.

Why they have to do that, I can't remember. In fact I've forgotten most of the occurrences that drive the plot forward because the whole thing's such an unfocused mess.

Unfortunately, the same goes for the social satire everyone talked about and which we all expected from a feminist director like Gerwig. Satire about the patriarchy is in there in the form of Ken (Ryan Gosling) travelling to the real world with Barbie and realising there's a place where guys can be on top, going back to Barbie land and restyling himself a kind of gender-insensitive surfer bro.

It also pays homage to the longstanding cultural awareness of how Barbie has always been white, tall and skinny and rather than encouraging girls that they can be anything, only serves as another representation of impossible beauty to make them feel inadequate.

Barbie's quest falls into place when she suddenly starts to think about mortality. Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a Barbie now ostracised from the rest of the Barbieland who knows how the connections to the real world work, tells her it's because the girl in the real world who played with her as a child is in psychological distress, her pain manifesting in Barbieland by distinctly real world problems suffered by her corresponding Barbie doll (bad breath, flat feet and cellulite).

Barbie goes to the real world to find her kid, Sasha, and her and her mother Gloria accompany Barbie back to Barbieland, where everything's now going off the rails thanks to the existential crisis now infecting everything and everyone. In amongst all this plotting, Ken (Gosling) realises he can be more than a hunk on a beach while women run the world.

There are good ideas in there about sexism and feminism, the place of men and woman in idealised as well as natural societies, big business, body image and a host of other very contemporary issues.

But why the writing attached them to the plot where they appeared felt very inorganic, as if Gerwig and Baumbach came up with a million social themes and became determined to include them somewhere. Just watch the pro-feminist rant given by Gloria near the end – a perfectly worthy sentiment but a horrible, out-of-place, movie-stopping clanger when it appears.

That leaves the whole story flailing everywhere, never sure of what it's saying in an overall sense apart from issuing quick bites on a host of social issues. Together with a plot that's all over the place and full of turns in the plot and cause and effect that are seldom clear, it's just a diffuse melting pot of ideas and images that adds up to far less than the sum of its parts.

The good news is that Gerwig, who showed she was capable of far more than just pointing a camera at a hipsters with Little Women , is just as talented wielding a big budget, big stars and visual arts like cinematography, costuming and design.

But the less talked about effect from Barbie's success isn't that it's galvanised the position of a very talented director (who I hope will do far more interesting material than this), its that Mattel has been running all over town signing agreements to make movies based on every toy it's ever owned.

Like so many other franchises that begin with smart, well made first instalments (Jaws, A Nightmare of Elm Street, The Matrix, Die Hard, Christopher Reeves' run as Superman) and quickly turned corporate, soulless and ugly, everything Barbie begets will be an increasingly crass clunky parody of itself.

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