Sunday, July 30, 2023

Kill all Ken


Directed by Greta Gerwig
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

Spoilers: high

Amongst the numerous things Barbie does that aren't really to its creditwhich doesn't mean that there aren't still numerous things that aresurely the most soul-deadening is that, by design, it makes writing anything about it, including praise but especially criticism, a nerve-wracking test of ideological purity.  (Unless you're right-wing, in which case writing about it is easy, practically automatic.)  The least hazardous way to criticize it would be to do so from its left: to rail against the machine that made it, Mattel (and I guess to some lesser degree Warner Bros.), and the broader phenomenon of social justice being commodified and sold back to its advocates as a consumerist product, rather cynically in this case given that Barbie takes in as its raw material its own criticismwhich to the best of my (imperfect) knowledge has already been incorporated into the actual toy line for years if not decadesbefore neutralizing that criticism and rendering it just another aspect of its brand.  But to do that would be dishonest of me: Barbie being a feature-length advertisement for Barbies is, to my mind, a reasonably neutral thing, and since using what's probably the 20th century's single most iconic depiction of femininity is inherently interesting, it's best to just let Greta Gerwig et al do so without singling them out, inasmuch as the vast majority of the 20th century's most iconic depictions of anything are, duh, going to be owned by major corporations.  (That Barbie is a toy isn't so persuasive, eitherthey have made arch-capitalist movies about toys that are humdingersbut it's true that Barbie's lack of much intrinsic narrative or even a stable identity will, eventually, throw some wrenches into some gears.)

More importantly, I don't really see any absolute contradiction between "feminism" (a belief that removing patriarchal obstacles will enable women to live fuller, fairer lives) and "capitalism" (a mode of production that, as a matter of pure theory, doesn't much care who runs it), and one could readily embrace either, neither, or both.  That the movie tries to inoculate itself to this possible line of criticism, too, and accordingly conflates feminism with anti-capitalism anyway, is somewhat eye-rolling; but I assume if we asked Adriana Cisneros, Diana Ferguson, Noreena Hertz, and Judy Olian how they feel about being erased from Mattel's board of directors for the sake of a joke, they would doubtless give it a hearty thumbs-up while lugging around sacks with dollar signs on them, perhaps remarking that their company's movie still illustrates deeper truths.  (And in fairness Barbie's manufacturer's board is male-skewed, and two of those women are, professionally speaking, academics rather than businesspeople, which I find unusual, and may wind up digging into, though it's well outside the scope of "Barbie movie review.")  Anyway, such an approachthat misapplication of broadly leftist rhetoricis, frankly, always suspect, in much the same way that most people who use the phrase "white women" just mean "women," and that there's practically no sentence with the word "karen" that could not have that replaced with the word "bitch" and not be a functionally identical statement, except at least there's nobody with the given name "Bitch" to get their feelings unnecessarily hurt by it.

So I won't do that.  I'll say that, on one level, Barbie is a great relief: it's not "the YouTube video essay you pay to see in a theater" that I continue to fear cinema is on the brink of becoming, and while its worst aspects are, of course, exactly that, it's thankfully not its principal mode.  It's sometimes prone to overprosecuting its arguments, but mostly behind a veneer of cartoonishness to make it genial (in many cases even preferable), and only ever gets really stuck down there when the film narrows its purpose down to just prosecuting an argument, in a way it hopes its target audience will find rousing, notably in one of those big ol' list-of-grievance speeches you sometimes see, which must have emotional value, because women sure do seem to enjoy them, but which I can only reckon are meant to be taken more as an impressionistic portrait of gendered anxieties about being a person amongst people rather than legitimate paradoxes that only accrue to women.  (It's similar to the "Cool Girl" soliloquy of Gone Girl except those complaints were more particular to femininity, plus here there's not the saving grace of it being uttered by a feminine id monster whom you are asked to enjoy as myth and a la carte; moreover, Barbie's "Being a Woman Is Impossible" isor at least it sure feels liketwo or three times longer than "Cool Girl," and unfortunately done at a "proscenium monologue with cutaway reaction shots" level of cinematic elaboration.)  But otherwise Barbie's doing little to annoy anyone, except maybe at the very end, which comes off a bit like it knows exactly what it wants to do, but it has to satisfy a constituency that's a touch too literalistic and slightly vengeful, which winds up kind of unnecessarily mean in a world that, after all, can be imagined any way you like.

With that gotten out of the way, then, Barbie still isn't very good, but almost exclusively along the lines of "how does it do it?" than the "what does it do?", and even as far as that goes, it's the "how many ways does it do it?," the answer being "all of them, because we never pared down our core concepts to a number we could really manage."  I identified no fewer than five separate movies in Barbie all battling within its runtime for supremacyhow is this the tentpole that runs under two hours? (even noticeably under)and some of them are more in contention with each other, and some less, though there are only two that I think it does well, and only one that it does well in pursuit of a complete and satisfying story.  Yet, premise-wise, it seems incredibly straightforward: in Barbieland, mystically off to the side of normative reality, live the Barbies, and also the Kens, and one day one of these Barbiesthe Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), though I assume this is not the official name of the productbegins to start experiencing the physical signs of age, a catastrophe for an immortal doll-person.  She seeks the wisdom of the Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon); Weird Barbie sends her upon a quest of discovery in the real world.  Her "boyfriend" Ken, Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling), smuggles himself onto the Dream Car to accompany her, and they find that the real world is rather different from the detail-light matriarchal utopia of Barbieland.

That's Movie 1.  Movie 2, meanwhile, involves this Barbie's real-world all-grown-up owner Gloria (America Ferrera), whose own depression has infected Barbie via their psychic link, her thoughts having lately turned towards aging, death, and mediocrity, plus disconnection from her insufferable Zoomer daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), which you'd think would be a silver lining, but it's not presented that way.  Movie 3 is just, like, Zoolander, or The LEGO Movie, and it has Will Ferrell in the antagonistic businessman role to prove it; he's on a mission to put Barbie "back in her box" lest something nebulously bad occur.  Movie 2 and Movie 3 are not ever sufficiently astonished that Movie 1 is happening, by the way.  Movie 4 is the spectacle of funny fantasy artifice that draws upon Golden Age musicals and Tim Burton movies (and Wes Anderson movies, though I haven't seen its two principals, Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, erstwhile Anderson collaborators, be super-keen on admitting that) and which exists to show off the life-sized Barbie toy sets, which are perhaps the most urgent reason to see Barbie, though Movie 4 also enfolds Movie 4-B, which is a litany of reference jokes to the Mattell toy line and, charitably, recontextualizations thereof, such as Allan (Michael Cera).  And Movie 5 is Fight Club, with Ken, albeit more unconsciously, having his own crisis, thanks to the pet-like status of the Kens of Barbieland, compounded by "his" Barbie's chipper indifference to his existence; Ken realizes that in the real world it's men rather than women who get their way and get to follow their dreams, so he imports patriarchy back to his world, rendering it a twisted nightmare version of what it was before.

There's some configuration of some of these movies that would be perfectly great, though in this configuration they step on each other's toes and constantly.  This is especially the case for Barbie's movieand while a lot of the movie makes it feel like you must be wrong to interpret her static existence in Barblieland as dissatisfying and meaningless, these are the exact beats her arc gets, complete with an encounter with her creator Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) and a denouement that finds her facing what, for Barbie, truly is the Greatest Unknown.  This is all perfectly solid and well in the domain of stories about what it means to come to life, and it is all consistently interfered with by the fact that Barbie does indeed have a purpose, namely to help Gloria get her groove back and teach Sasha that, actually, dolls are cool.  I said I didn't much care that Barbie is fundamentally a 114-minute toy ad, but to the extent that it can be germane to whether or not it works, it's fair play to point out the primary function of Gloria's movie (and Will Ferrell's movie, for that matter) is to explain to skeptics why it's okay to enjoy Barbie brand dolls.  Even to the extent that Gloria and Sasha are also here to recite talking points, it would probably be more interesting to have Barbie come to the same conclusions herself, which must be something the screenplay was already aware of, since, well, she does.

It imposes upon the movie a shocking amount of superfluous material, and imposed upon me a bit of a malaise: needless to say, Gloria and Sasha are incredibly boring; Ferrell's CEO is a decent single-scene joke about an all-male corporate board whose job is to sell feminism without female input while nonetheless still seeming to sort of believe in it, but he's in way more than just one scene; and I haven't mentioned Helen Mirren's meta narrator, but she's surprisingly prevalent even after the opening infodump, and her lightly-sarcastic overexplanations are pointless and condescending.  These time-sinks are the biggest reason Barbie becomes something of a slurry, an extended series of sketches that's almost never capable of being any better than the most recent vignette, and as the movie goes on, its "most recent vignette" is less likely to be goodpretty inevitably, I'm afraid, since like most comedies since the 1920s, it's prone to become more serious heading into its conclusion (honestly, it's impressive that The Feminist Essay Barbie isn't much more prone to it than usual), but then, the big drop's already occurred early, exactly coincident with Barbie and Ken's arrival in the real world.

It's not in any sense "real," of course, and Gerwig and Baumbach have, I suppose correctly, intuited that their comedy needs to maintain something akin to a lightness of tone even as Barbie faces a much grittier place, but upon entry into the "real" Los Angeles the film tumbles bodily into a genuine uncanny valley of tone, using somehow exactly the wrong amount of cartoonishness, lackadaisically broad without ever getting amusingly nuts.  Consider our Kencel, who's supposed to have been instantly redpilled, but I genuinely have no idea why.  (There's a montage of Ken attempting to fill jobs that is supposed to be funny purely on the basis of his insistence that being a man qualifies him for them; I don't know, would it not be funnier if he actually was, for instance, allowed to do some light surgery?)  Ken claims, anyway, that this is the first time he'd ever been shown respectand Ken clearly sets the bar lower than you or I wouldbut I assume this would be the reason why Ken is kept carefully segregated from Sasha, because I don't think even he'd be able to maintain many illusions after that.  As long as we're doing just straight-up notes, more musical numbers are always a good idea; and I would like to ask how Gerwig managed the prologue she does, a nifty 2001: A Space Odyssey parody, without doing anything with the fact that the movie she and Baumbach actually wrote was Planet of the Apes, a tale of a protagonist returning to her world to find its foundational logic flipped on its head in perverted mockery, while even resembling it in precise details, like the emphasis on horses.  (I guess I'm also a little disappointed the film does nothing with Robbie and Gosling in any multiple roles.)  This is all on top of what might be fundamental lacksit's a movie about gender, without sexuality (I kind of wish there were more jokes about the absence of genitalia, which wouldn't be un-lazy, but I think I would've laughed more), and it's a movie about patriarchy that has a flopsweaty need to work around how that might come to be without violence.  "The Barbies are like Native Americans with no immunity to Ken's viral memes," or whatever the line was, is not well-judged, but hey, we could all be more careful.

The very, very obvious thing it does very, very well, though, is Barbieland: I'd have to see it again to be absolutely certain, but I'm pretty sure the worst scene in Barbieland is better than the best scene in the real world, and that's not because every scene in Barbieland is funnier (though it usually is), but because Barbieland looks very awesome.  It is adorably meticulous in its tactile anti-realism; I expect we have 2023's automatic Best Production Design winners in Sarah Greenwood alongside set decorator Katie Spencer, who have covered themselves in glory with this Pantone 219 wonderland, a sprawling yet dreamily minimalistic toy city and playset beachI am disposed to call their lock on the category deservedto the extent that Rodrigo Pietro's cinematography is going to be completely overlooked, in part because half or more of his footage doesn't rise above "just okay," but the Barbieland sequences have just the most beautifully thought-through flat plastic sheen that's a real multiplier for all the hard work put in by Greenwood and Spencer.  I don't know if costume designer Jacqueline Duran will automatically get an Oscar for her costumes, but I don't see why she shouldn't, and in fact Duran's cavalcade of Barbie outfits might make hers the most valuable of all the craft contributions here even if "cavalcade of Barbie outfits" was not only half of it, given that her Ken outfits might be even better, and arguably the single most important avenue for telling Beach Ken's story.  Beyond that, the costumes come along at a nicely steady clip throughout the entire film, and Duran is not laboring, as Greenwood and Spencer do, under the very unfortunate stricture of basically having nothing new to show us by the quarter mark.  And this is unfortunate, because there is a moment where you realize, "okay, I guess we have seen all that Barbieland has to offer," yet the movie is still on.

The other thing, and this is also very, very obvious, is casting.  There's arguably nobody around today more perfect than Robbie to play Barbie, but there's plausibly no one in all film history more perfect than Gosling to play Ken.  Robbie's good and credibly committed, as she almost invariably is, though she suffers from that muddled conception, so while her big, emotional scenes are splendidly performed in a living-doll register, they're kind of building off nothing because the movie has told us numerous times she's just a reflection of Gloria (and Gloria's character-building happens predominantly in a life insurance commercial montage, indicating how much the movie cares about her).  Gosling, though, who almost really does get his own fully-developed movie in the heart of all the half-built shells of Barbie's numerous other moviesand who, luckily for him, even gets to guest-star in the best parts of those other moviesgets to actually do things.  So I will make the very provocative, very counterintuitive, but I think very accurate argument that Ken is the most humanized figure Barbie's got, including its humans.  That's patriarchy for you, I guess (Ken's crisis can come from within Ken), but it's how it shook out, and Gosling manages to get through unscathed despite the Ken Movie having something like the same problems as everything else (Gerwig is extremely reluctant to decide, and hence never does, whether the Kens are metaphors for women in the real world, or if they're metaphors for manosphere terrorists; but this ambiguity is, alone in the film, truly graceful).  It benefits from Gosling's two great strengths as an actor, which I don't believe have ever been brought together before: on the one hand, he is the most reliably physically-comic screen presence working todayGosling can be funny without doing anything, and since this script's not always funny by itself, this is a boonand on the other, Gosling is an old hand at hollow men who aren't quite real boys yet. (He's also a strong singer and, hell, Ken's the one character who's ever afforded any serious sense of wonder about worlds beyond his... ahem, comprehension.)  Bringing together into one performance the effortless clownishness and the effortless quiet desperation of one of our most invaluable male stars, and never letting those things congeal entirely into bathos, probably should not be Barbie's greatest accomplishment; let's therefore concede it's actually the production and costume design, even if we have our doubts.  But Ken's movie is the goony, funny version of Blade Runner 2049, where his name was already "K," my word.

Score: 6/10

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