Dir: Greta Gerwig | US Fantasy drama | 116′
Before an explosion of psychedelic plastic heralds the long-awaited advent of Barbie we are transported back to a prehistoric playground where Helen Mirren describes a ludic past when little girls played ‘mummy’ with their pliable baby dolls. Then Mattel entrepreneur Ruth Handler came along and decided to up the game. She gave her own daughter something more adult-like to play with – the result was Barbie.
Margot Robbie, all toned limbs and blonde, hair plays this glamour toy like the real thing. In her candy-coloured kingdom “Artificial Barbie” enjoys a sexless teenage dream of girlie get-togethers where wimpish, whingeing himbos only exist to serve to serve their female counterparts. We start to wonder how long we can put up with this prissy pastel charade. Then along comes the storyline.
Artificial Barbie encounters ‘an issue’ and has to visit the ‘real world’ where women are still being diminished by the male of the species. And, unsurprisingly, she immediately suffers an existential crisis.
In her fourth feature, Greta Gerwig shares script honours with consort Noah Baumbach. crossing into the 145 M$ super league. Co-produced by the BARBIE franchise m-holders Mattel, the feature suffers a toxic overload with its multiple subplots: the gender war between Barbie (Robbie) and Ken (Gosling) is just an excuse for a tiff in the trenches of old and new feminism. The boy brigade, led by Ken (a perfectly cast Gosling), is rather less imaginative in the tussle to regain control not only of old-fashioned Barbie-land but also of reality (in this case the Hollywood suburb of Santa Monica). Gerwig/Baumbach create endless quotes to exploit their subject matter, starting with Kubrick’s 2001 styled set where sullen little girls throw their toys out of the pram, rejecting dreams and motherhood at the same time.
Barbie is a resentful feature even when indulging in self-critique: Artificial Barbie complains about “Sexualised Capitalism” and her lack of beauty, the Helen Mirren cuts in with “Margret Robbie is the wrong actress to cast”. Well, Robbie might not be a miniature doll, but she is certainly not a push-over when it comes to Ken and his low level aggressiveness which often looks over-mannered.
But as long as Barbie channels its Busby Berkeley spectacle of song and dance routines all is well. Somewhere after the 90 minute mark Gerwig remembers she is supposed to be staging an epic masterpiece, and things go down downhill. “Irresponsible thoughts of death” and “Proustian flashbacks” have nothing to do with ‘gen Barbie Doll’, past or present.
Virtue-signalling demands the hiring of America Ferrera and Issa Rae, a Latino mother/daughter duo, who help Barbie to save and conquer the real world. Will Ferrell is brilliant as the dancing/singing/running CEO of Mattel, reprising his sublime nasty role in Elf.
But whatever Gerwig/Baumbach had in mind the profit will go to franchise holders Mattel and Ruth Handler ((cuttingly described as “a five foot Jewish woman with a double mastectomy and tax issues”) who have once again reinvented their brand. Barbie will go on living in the minds of those who – like me – just thought of her as a ‘fun doll to dress up in different outfits’: and even gave her an androgynous crop (her hair never grew back!.) The film is original, high-performing but soulless. MT
NOW IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 21 JULY 2023