Sunday, September 24, 2023

Dream House Not Included

Film: Barbie
Format: Phoenix Theaters, Dubuque, Iowa

I finally got a chance to go to the theater and see Barbie, the first half of the Barbenheimer double feature that was popular a number of weeks ago. Of course, I went into this knowing some things about the film, but I was surprisingly cold on the actual plot and many of the people involved. I was surprised, for instance, at the presence of Will Ferrell in the film, as I didn’t know he was attached to the project. Barbie became a cultural phenomenon, one that also got a lot of blowback from the political right because, as a film written by and directed by a clearly pro-feminist filmmaker, it’s going to ruffle a lot of conservative feathers.

We start with a 2001: A Space Odyssey parody that was the first point of anger I heard from the right—the little girls playing the parts of the pre-humans destroy their dolls much like the pre-humans smash bones in Kubrick’s film. From here we jump to Barbieland where, with a few exceptions, everyone is named either Barbie or Ken. That makes identifying some people here difficult, as different characters named Barbie are played by dozens of actors, and ditto for Ken.

In Barbieland, all of the Barbies are convinced that what they have done is cause things in the real world to tend toward equality, where women are in control of everything. All of the Barbies have their own jobs—there is President Barbie, Doctor Barbie, their Supreme Court is all Barbies, and on and on. We’ll be focused on Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), who is the Barbie that everyone thinks of when they think of Barbie. Also living in Barbieland are the Kens, who are desperate for attention from their putative girlfriends. The Barbies have their best day ever every day, while the Kens just try to get their attention. Again, there are many Kens, but we will be mainly focused on the Ken who desperately wants our Barbie’s attention (Ryan Gosling). From this point forward, when I talk about Barbie and Ken without specifying, these are the two I am talking about.

Barbie begins having an existential crisis—thinking of death, developing cellulite, and worst of all, developing flat feet. Needing an answer, she goes to meet with Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a Barbie who was played with too hard and now has colored hair and drawings on her face and is always found in the splits. Weird Barbie tells her that what is happening is a connection between her and the girl playing with her in the real world. So she has to enter the real world and figure out the problem. And off she goes, with Ken stowing away both wanting to help and wanting as much time with Barbie alone as he can get.

In the real world, Barbie discovers things aren’t what she thought. Women aren’t in charge. She isn’t seen as an icon of feminine equality. The girl she tracks down (Ariana Greenblatt) calls her a fascist. And it turns out that this girl isn’t the one playing with her, but her mother (America Ferrara) is—and it’s her ideas that are breaking through to Barbieland. Meanwhile, Ken encounters the patriarchy and decides that it would work in Barbieland to put the Kens in charge. Also meanwhile, the executives at Mattel, headed by Will Ferrell, find out about Barbie’s incursion into the real world and work to stop it from getting out of control.

There is frankly a lot to talk about here.

First off, this is exquisitely casted. Standouts include Simu Liu and Ncuti Gatwa as Kens (and a John Cena Ken cameo), Michael Cera as Alan, a sort of knock-off Ken, filmmaker Emerald Fennell as Midge, Barbie’s pregnant friend, and Rhea Perlman as Ruth, Barbie’s creator. I also need to bring up the costuming, which is top-notch, as well as the set design. If there is justice in the world, this wins the Oscar for set design in a rout—it looks like a human-sized Barbie playset.

The logic here is tremendous as well. The Barbies and Kens don’t actually eat or drink—they mime it—so this is something of a shock in the real world. Similarly, Barbie doesn’t walk down stairs, but simply floats from her Dreamhouse to her car, because that’s how kids play with Barbie. It happens in the real world, so it happens in Barbieland.

I genuinely wonder not how many Oscars Barbie will win, but how many categories it will be snubbed in. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach should win for the screenplay, because this is handled beautifully. Gerwig should also be on the ticket for director. I can see Margot Robbie nominated, and possibly Gosling in support. I can see America Ferrara with a supporting nod as well—she has a clear Oscar moment. I don’t know that it will happen, since Oscar sometimes balks at commercial success. But there’s a chance here, and I hope it comes through.

What doesn’t work here is the whole subplot involving the Mattel executives. After our initial few meetings with them, once they have tried to recapture Barbie, they’re played out. They stay in the film, even heading to Barbieland themselves, but it feels very cobbled in to me. It’s humor for its own sake, cobbled into the film rather than working more organically. Because of that, it calls attention to itself rather than fitting in seamlessly with everything else.

So, Barbie isn’t perfect unlike the idea of Barbie, the doll. And that’s okay, because it’s far better than it had a right to be.

Why to watch Barbie: Greta Gerwig is the best American filmmaker working right now.
Why not to watch: Pretty much everything that happens with the Mattel higher ups doesn’t work as well as it wants to.


  1. I'm at about the same place. I loved a lot of it, but the execs and Ariana Greenblat's character worked the least for me. Still, it was a fun time at the movies, especially with the Barbenheimer double feature.

    1. I don't have any issues with Arianna Greenblatt's character. She turns from petulant teen to on board with Barbie quickly, but that's the nature of the movie.

      The execs are funny, but it doesn't feel as much in keeping with the rest of the film. I think we'd have essentially the same movie without them ending up in Barbieland.

  2. While I think Oppenheimer was the better of the two films. Barbie was just a lot of fun while I had what I felt was one of the best theatrical experiences I had ever had. It felt like an event where I was surrounded by a lot of women wearing pink and here I was trying to freak people out by wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt. Yet, I was called Heavy Metal Ken by the end of the film as I had fun watching it as well as laughing a lot. Greta Gerwig deserves a Best Director nod for this.

    1. There should be a lot of Oscar nods here.

      Since we saw this so late, it was just me, my wife, and two tween girls in the theater. They were extremely well-behaved, although I do have to wonder how the trailer for the new Exorcist movie affected them. Honestly, it seemed like a bad choice for a trailer.

  3. I agree the boardroom was overplayed. This is where even internal logic went out the window. Everything else worked. I think my 13 year old son and I laughed even more than my wife.
    While Margot Robbie may well get a nomination, the oscar will, or ought to, go to Helen Mirren for Golda.

    1. I haven't seen Golda, but it sounds like it will be on my Oscar list soon enough.

      The problem with Margot Robbie getting a nomination is that Oscar hates comedies, and that's what Barbie is, ultimately.