Kenough is Kenough! The Barbie Movie and the Big Kerfuffle.

This week’s film spiel. Special thanks to Victoria Yvette Salazar-Peña and Weena Mack

I had planned on seeing the Barbie movie from the moment it was announced, in part because I’m a fan of director Greta Gerwig since seeing her 2012 film Frances Ha, as well as enjoying every performance I’ve seen by lead actress Margot Robbie, but mostly because I think co-writer and -producer (and also Greta’s husband) Noah Baumbach is the best humorist since Robert Benchley. In the time since then, the film has made a huge splash, making over a billion(!) dollars at the box office and angering a bunch of uptight bros. I had high expectations for the film, but after a number of people told me they had seen or were planning to see it a second (or even third) time, I became curious as to what made this film so powerful to so many while upsetting a certain group of folks to no end.

Now that I have seen the film for the first time (yes, I am also one of those people who plan on watching it again), I understand. The film works on a number of levels but its message is consistent and clear across the board: women are great and the patriarchy sucks. This is why it has been so warmly received by so many and also why those self-appointed gatekeepers of Macho are so traumatized. The movie speaks the truth and those in denial are understandably upset.

What makes this seemingly light entertainment so substantial, so profound a viewing experience, is the writing. Between Gerwig’s flawless juggling of product placement/redemption (it is a Mattel production about a Mattel product after all), politically incisive social observations, over-the-top musical numbers, and what I assume to be Baumbach’s top-notch humor, the film is so loaded with meaning that it takes a while to unpack it all.

Of all those elements, it’s the humor that works best as a two-edged sword, comforting and amusing those who see real world truths embedded in the plot and who know that what is being presented is out of love and the deepest empathy, while pissing off the bros who are still trying to maintain the status quo. When bad behavior is addressed by pointed jokes, those singled out often lose their minds. Some might even run for President if they got their little feelings hurt in this manner. The humor is also the sugar that helps the medicine go down for those on the fence about the goodness of feminism and the validity of the female gaze.

If films are another form of storytelling, and if all storytelling incorporates some version of the concept of “family,” then the story Barbie attempts to tell is as big as the world and hardly flippant or disposable. It is a perfect Trojan horse of subversion: you go in expecting to see something entertaining for an hour or two and not something that affects you any deeper than that. But it is and it does. One minute you’re laughing loudly, the next minute you’re tearing up, the minute after that you’re singing along, and then the cycle repeats. When the end credits roll, you might even feel uplifted, encouraged that love might still save us.

Concerning the nuts and bolts of what makes Barbie nearly flawless, I’d just like to cite a few things other than the script. First up would be Gerwig’s skill at directing a very well-cast ensemble, including:

Margot Robbie has a number of scenes where she conveys her turmoil about her newfound human-ness with skill and subtlety, both through her delivery of the dialogue and non-verbally via facial expressions. I’ve read that a number of actresses were considered for the role but after seeing the film I can’t imagine anyone but her owning the role so perfectly (the movie even addresses this with a cheeky comment from the film’s narrator, Helen Mirren).

Ryan Gosling is the film’s secret weapon. His version of Ken steals the show, simple but not a simpleton, a bro but not an incel, sure of his love for Barbie but less sure of himself. Like Robbie, he brings nuance to a character based on a plastic toy that is alive and vulnerable and far from two-dimensional. When he sings his solo song, I didn’t find it meh or roll my eyes, I actually cared about how Ken was feeling. He also represents the patriarchy in a way that shows up its bullying and selfishly shortsighted agenda while not diminishing his charisma in the least. Quite an impressive hat trick and one I would not have expected or even really considered possible. Well done, Mr. Gosling!

Making Simu Liu a competing Ken was a stroke of genius. His vanity and almost gay attraction to Gosling make their screentime together some of the film’s finest moments. The scenes where he’s leading a charge while waving a rainbow-ish flag or the ones where he’s tossing his hair all sexy stylee had me howling. I have high hopes for this young man’s career in film.

John Cena in a long blonde wig as a merman? BWAHAHAHA.

The set and costume design of Barbie’s world is a psychedelic explosion of pink and nicely balances out the more ordinary vistas of the “real world” as the film moves back and forth between them. I predict an Oscar nomination and possible win for one or both.

Also award-worthy is the soundtrack. This was a big surprise to me and I was delighted that the songs and musical interludes were of such a quality that even this curmudgeon found himself singing along (“I’m a Barbie girl…”). I even found myself earlier today looking on the Waxwork Records site to see which vinyl variants were still available for pre-order.

One of the elements used in the telling of this tale is references to other films. For film students, this automatically enhances the joy factor while viewing. For example, the opening scene, which parodies that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is spot on, both as a humorous and engaging starting point that sets the tone for the rest of the movie and as a subtle dig at its subtext that civilization is a direct outgrowth of the violence of men.

And that’s the beauty of Barbie: it illuminates the struggle of women by reflecting and refracting this man’s world in so many ways with humor and intelligence that it is impossible to ignore its message: the times they are a changin’ and it’s about damn time.

Thank you.

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