One of you has stepped forward. One of you has made a selfless sacrifice. Arguments were still raging at LMO Towers as to who was going to have to go and see Barbie. We were getting close to agreeing to Shawn T’s suggestion that we play Russian Roulette for it and the last one alive has to go and watch it (quickly, and before the police arrive) but we have been saved from that by an Outposter going above and beyond. Mr. Horta has seen it. Pay tribute to his bravery!
Mr. Horta Reviews Barbie
First, the obvious: What the fuck, Mr. Horta?
“I come to LMO to escape Barbie hype and now you wanna shove my face in it?”
No hype here, just admittedly subjective clinical analysis. Let’s be honest: a poor review of Barbie would get me physically murdered on any number of websites. But flip that: would I actually give it a good review if I really did like it? Would I be open to that possibility?
With one hand up and the other on my chest, I say yes. Barbie would have me declare solidarity with a dumb choreographed handshake. If it helps, the similarly bright-but-up-its-own-ass Asteroid City is a 2-star movie for me. Barbie has more in common with Megaforce (1.5 stars) and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2.5 stars and a guilty pleasure) than people may want to admit. We’ll come back to that.
Time for the review yet? Shit, more caveats…
On a Florida vacation with family – wife, teen daughter, mother – I found myself surrounded on three sides by pre-fans of Barbie. Seeing the movie was inevitable. You can ask: “Why let yourself fall into that situation to begin with, Mr. Horta? Can’t you expel a lava-like substance?” But I can’t choose my mom (who actually is great) and my wife and daughter are in fact also great. Sometimes the zeitgeist beckons and just when you want to scream “Make a break for the fourth side!”… my boss (also a woman, also great, lets me work from home) is a fan of Barbie. Maybe it’s good, in certain circles, to be able to talk knowingly about Barbie. I can provide talking points.
So is Barbie, the blockbuster of the summer, actually good? Answer: no.
Barbie is the live-action visualization of a self-doubting smart girl playing with the titular doll. Sound like something you want to watch? A lot of people do apparently. For me that’s called babysitting – done as a favor or, alternately, I demand money. I’ll gladly watch Barbie if someone pays me.
In a utopia of pink plastic houses and Barbie-dominated culture, life is perfect until Barbie starts thinking of death. Ken is an ineffectual douchebag. Barbie learns she has to set out into the real world, joined by Ken, to find the person “playing with her” (and thus filling her with negative thoughts). The head of Mattel (Will Ferrell) pursues her while Ken, infected with ideas from the real world, establishes a misogynist “Kendom” run from Barbie’s dream home. Barbie teams up with the woman from the real world who played with her as a girl to defeat him.
Late in the movie, America Ferrara’s harried mom – a Mattel executive secretary with artistic dreams – delivers a passionately direct monologue about the social burdens women bear. As a husband and father, I appreciate this. I want my daughter to be empowered. If righteous feminist rooftop-shouting is what you long for, no matter what kind of flimsy excuse for a meta-plot they hang it on, you’re in luck with Barbie. For many in the audience it’s why they’re here, messages smuggled into a silly movie because another showcase would be a boring earthtone period piece about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and it would definitely not make a billion dollars. Bader…Barbie…hmm. Forget it.
Barbie has a great last line – always a nice touch. Margot Robbie is endearingly engaged and Greta Gerwig knows some fundamental aspects of action in a low-stakes car chase similar to one Fletch did better.
The movie’s world-building is its production design (see Flintstones, The, and also “What Doesn’t Work” below). Cinematography earns an “I Participated!” award for no missteps if no real moments of inspiration. The movie’s 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired opening gets credit for glimpses of film-grain fidelity, even if it’s ultimately annoying and the jump-cut is a letdown.
If a comedy lacks all-time moments, to some degree steady chuckling will suffice. For better or worse, synthpop continues to be among the most enduring creative innovations of the past 45 years.
11-year-olds will have a new future favorite movie from childhood in Barbie. Maybe Airplane! should’ve had me thinking about gender inequality? We thought “Don’t call me Shirley” was a punchline when it was a declaration all along.
What Doesn’t Work
In the end, Barbie is a two-hour SNL sketch on a big budget. The mechanics of how the world works are as slapdash as those of a child’s imagination – The Last Action Hero had similar problems. By contrast, Back to the Future has jaw-dropping invention behind its plot. Barbie’s conflicts are random, no one can get hurt and the world feels as small as an upper-middle-class ‘tween’s Chicago-suburb basement.
It’s probably sexist to suggest that G.I. Joe is set in a reality that’s essentially our own plus their high-tech weapons. Barbie takes place in a full-on fantasy world, with all the negated logic and physics that comes with it. Wreck-It Ralph did it better.
“You must be fun at parties!” some would say. I say please enjoy Barbie! But is there a single compelling sequence? Is there one indelible image, a bravura shot, or an all-time joke? No, and that’s when the weight of Barbie’s pre-emptive popularity weighs against it.
“Then they came into our world…” movies doom themselves by failing to have the guts (almost said balls) to show anything like a legitimate downer of a glimpse into our honest reality. Let’s see Enchanted meets Menace II Society. In Barbie, the underside of society is construction workers on break, a sex-pest roller-blader, and bumbling, redeemable corporate execs. We talk enthusiastically about gender inequality and ignore economic inequality. (Not saying the former isn’t a problem.) Aren’t there kids in abject poverty who would buy a Barbie if they could? No comment, the movie says.
Barbie’s opening-weekend box office alone means it’s destined to haunt us. Soon, every Thanksgiving it’ll be on FX or TNT or whatever; put it on for bored relatives and soak in the bright tackiness, the “beach me off” jokes, and let them process the feminist rants. Trade earnest nods. You won’t need the full movie, or even most of it. It’s more skit than film, so why not just enjoy the silly strained bits and pieces?
The bigger problem is what Barbie’s success means, success I indirectly contributed to, longer-term. Stupider sequels probably, unless someone can come up with Barbie: Pig in the City.
More movies-as-merchandising will force their way down our throats but with an arc we have to pretend to be into: you like this toy from the past? It’s fascist, killing-the-environment, bad-message misogynist garbage. But it made kids happy! It’s a product that can do better, or at least recognize how awful it is! Our product has a heartwarming redemption story – it’s right there in the movie! Buy us now; we’re good!
Let’s just say Margot Robbie is a gifted comic actress. Ryan Gosling is…Ryan Gosling. Greta Gerwig is, with the right project, a promising director. And Barbie is bad, even if the world can’t admit it yet.
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