Barbie review with BRIAN VINER: The father and son’s verdict that it is a crushing irony that the biggest and best laughs come from Ken
Barbie arrives in cinemas on Friday, wafted on huge, fluffy, pink clouds of hype.
There have been interviews galore with its stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, not to mention, for months now, a widespread billboard campaign backing up the social media onslaught.
We keep being told that it’s a movie for and about the sisterhood. Certainly, the promotional budget alone could have funded sparkling new tiaras for all the world’s princesses.
I duly intended to take my daughter to Barbie’s first UK unveiling but she’s gone to the Costa del Sol with her mates.
In any case, how much more interesting to go with my 24-year-old son, Jacob, a Millennial through and through, raised on equal opportunities, who has absorbed the tenets of feminism like his mother’s milk. What would he make of Barbie?
Unsurprisingly, there were many more women than men at the screening, quite a few dressed in vibrant pink
I duly intended to take my daughter to Barbie’s first UK unveiling but she’s gone to the Costa del Sol with her mates
The same as me, as it turned out. As so often happens in the wake of promotional frenzy, the soaring anticipation is not matched by the thudding reality.
In truth we had both arrived at the cinema with different expectations. For me, as a seasoned film critic, the relentless hype had begun to raise suspicions that maybe Warner Brothers was using up its promotional firepower in advance because it knew the movie itself to be a disappointment. That can happen.
Jacob was much less cynical. He was buzzing because his friends, both male and female, can’t wait to see a film that, in his words, ‘has gripped popular culture for the last six months’.
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He knew it would be an exercise in high camp and was well aware that the hysteria on TikTok in particular has been driven mainly by young women and gay men (he is neither). But not only had that not bothered him, it had heightened his excitement.
‘I know it’s anti the patriarchy and quite rightly so,’ he told me as we walked in. We are two generations divided by a common language, Jacob and I.
Unsurprisingly, there were many more women than men at the screening, quite a few dressed in vibrant pink.
Judging by the gales of laughter that swept the auditorium every time that so-called patriarchy got a clobbering, they enjoyed the film a fair bit more than we did.
Yes, Barbie is fun. Yes, it will make you laugh and might make you think. But from where Jacob and I were sitting it won’t change your life, probably not your summer, maybe not even your week.
Nevertheless, Greta Gerwig’s film begins splendidly, with a cheeky pre-titles nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lots of little girls are playing with the only kind of dolls that were available before Barbie came along in 1959. Apparently, dolls back then were all babies, to be fed and bathed and put to bed. Thus, girls were encouraged from infanthood to show their nascent motherly instincts.
But here we see them getting bored. One disgruntled cherub tosses her doll through the air, replicating the spinning bone in Kubrick’s famous ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence. We’re at the dawn of Barbie.
Soon we are in Barbie Land, a fantasy world that looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a candy floss factory. Everything is pink and there are high-heeled Barbies everywhere; beautiful, happy, accomplished women. There’s Lawyer Barbie, Writer Barbie and Physicist Barbie. There’s even a President Barbie. They’re all thrilled to see each other, all the time.
And there’s a tongue-in-cheek voiceover, delivered by none other than Helen Mirren. ‘Barbies can be anything,’ she tells us, ‘because women can be anything.’
Of the male of the species in Barbie Land she adds that Barbie has a great day every day, ‘but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him’.
Nevertheless, Greta Gerwig’s film begins splendidly, with a cheeky pre-titles nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey
As a bloke, you get the joke. You even laugh at the joke. But gradually it starts to wear thin, not because it’s unfunny or irrelevant but because the realisation grows that fundamentally it’s the only joke the film has.
All the Kens in Barbie Land are second-class citizens, banging their heads against the glass ceiling, their very existence an afterthought, an adjunct to Barbie, just as the original Ken was in 1961.
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There are lots of Kens, but the only one we’re interested in is brilliantly played by Gosling, with a starchy peroxide wash to replicate the doll’s plastic moulded hair. This Ken has the hots for the most beautiful Barbie (Robbie), but she is malfunctioning.
After she stops a joyous party in its tracks by mentioning death, a Barbie blasphemy, she is despatched to see Weird Barbie, who tells her that she has ruptured the membrane between their world and the real world, a dystopian place with, horror of horrors, cellulite and flat shoes.
Yet it is there that she must travel to put things right by tackling the person who has filled her lovely head with subversive thoughts.
Still smitten, Ken stows away in the back of her car and accompanies her to Los Angeles, where, of course, the pair find that the laws and customs of Barbie Land are turned on their head. Barbie’s new friend Gloria makes it clear: it is the fellas who call the shots here. The film’s one joke has a predictable new twist.
When the news reaches Barbie manufacturer Mattel that two of its toys are at large in the real world, the horrified CEO (Will Ferrell in dimbo mode) demands that they be found.
But by now Ken has learnt the exciting truth. It is too late to stop him returning to Barbie Land armed with staggering new intelligence, and turning it into a domain where Kens rule the roost and the Barbies (between scoffing family-sized bags of Starbursts and ‘watching the BBC’s Pride And Prejudice for the seventh time’) give them foot massages. This is now Ken-dom, with a government ‘of the Kens, for the Kens, and by the Kens’.
All the Kens in Barbie Land are second-class citizens, banging their heads against the glass ceiling, their very existence an afterthought, an adjunct to Barbie, just as the original Ken was in 1961
Needless to say, Gerwig and her co-writer and partner Noah Baumbach (the real-life Ken to her Barbie) have a hoot with all this. Their thunderous feminist message is leavened by plenty of sharp gags and, following her acclaimed 2017 film Lady Bird and the wonderful Little Women (2019), Gerwig further burnishes her reputation as a director of terrific flair.
Moreover, the set design (which we’re assured was created in the old-fashioned physical way and not by CGI) is wonderful. This film looks fabulously pretty in pink.
But, while I hate to add some splodges of brown, there are problems.
One is that Mattel, not satisfied with the merchandising bonanza certain to come its way, appears to have meddled too much in the narrative.
Jacob was mystified by an enigmatic elderly character played by Rhea Perlman who turns out to be Ruth Handler, the woman who created Barbie and was the first president of Mattel. That’s a self-reverential fanfare too far. A bigger issue is that the laughs rely throughout on that one-note joke repackaged over and over, that Barbie Land is the real world inverted.
I can’t honestly say that this made Jacob and I feel under attack ourselves. He thinks that the patriarchy is fair game; and I, despite the numerous feminist films that have come out post-MeToo, can see there’s a balance tilted heavily in favour of men that still needs redressing in cinematic fiction.
That said, can I confess to a tiny twinge of satisfaction on behalf of my much-maligned gender, because the real spectre at this feast of pink fairy cakes is that Gosling steals every scene he’s in.
What a crashing irony, all said and done, that the biggest and best laughs in Barbie come from Ken.
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