Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 24, 2023 9:30 pm 
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A critique of capitalism - to sell Ken and Barbie dolls?

Last weekend was the double blockbuster opening of the summer, Oppenheimer and Barbie. This has been called "The Barbenheimer effect" and is an international smashing of box office records. Finally the long covid cinema drought and closing or movie houses signals its end with this event. An odd couple indeed. The biopic Oppenheimer, which was expected to soar, is a Christopher Nolan movie, a big one, some think his best yet. Barbie is about a doll. The doll sold better - so much so people were forced to go to Oppenheimer instead. Gerwig has been conducting a massive promotional campaign for this movie, which has worked. There's also the synergy of the two biggest by far motion pictures of the summer opening on the same weekend.

Of course "Barbenheimer" makes no particular sense, except commercial. Oppenheimer is a serious film about the tormented and brilliant man who supervised the making of the atom bomb . Barbie is about, and "stars," a generic doll - really a whole Mattel product line of them that has now been on sale for 64 years. A witty sophist might find ways to link them. They shouldn't have the same audience. But what is the audience of Barbie, actually? Those looking for a buzz-worthy summer film, certainly. What, though, did the small girl who sat near me at my local movie theater think of the final moment of Barbie when Barbie's Margot Robbie incarnation walks toward the screen and a voice asks her what she wants and she says, "To see my gynecologist"? The overall trajectory of the film isn't for little girls, nor for older girls, either: it's what Alison Willmore in her Vulture review calls "a surreal existential crisis" - the crisis of a fictitious product creation.

Barbie is an original, attention-getting effort, colorful, fun, wanting at times to turn into a musical. But after Oppenheimer, it's a disappointment. Greta Gerwig's previous film was the wonderful 2017 Little Women. She teamed up with her husband Noah Baumbach to write the screenplay for this new film, but their aims in it seem confused. The stamp of Mattel, the corporation making these dolls, is all over this movie - and tie-in products. Barbie can be read as a brilliant pseudo-critical promotion (gentle satire as flattery) of Mattel products . This film is partly a history of the doll. One aspect is that Barbie, and Ken too, have been multiplied and provided in multi-occupational versions and in many colors, an "inclusiveness" of course simply good business, like all Mattel's strategies, producing this film included.

Mattel is being criticized and Ken and Barbie are being used to critique capitalism, fascism, and patriarchy in this film, but it's all a way to make us think about these adult-doll products and Mattel's many specific available or withdrawn versions of them, whose trademark images are emblazoned on the screen. Who are they kidding? The film partly makes fun of Barbie and of Mattel, but Mattel knows any publicity is good publicity. Barbie is the second blatant product placement movie this year, following Ben Affleck's April Nike promo feature, Air. But this one is worse because it thinks it's something arty and it's getting bigger box office and better reviews.

The critical response, following along with the hoop-la, has been glowing. But Barbie staggers back and forth between doll and real worlds - the dubious choice for this is Santa Monica - while the characters utter one-liners and the Baumbach-Gerwig screenplay struggles to be piquant and relevant. The magic of make believe isn't captured. Robbie and Gosling and the other human actor doll-realizations could have been not just gorgeously generic looking, as they strive so hard to be (especially Gosling, with his bleached-out hair and sun-toned skin and ripped muscles) but more mechanical and doll-like. A missed opportunity.

Barbie dolls were created by the original co-director of Mattel, the late Ruth Handler (adorably memorialized in the film in a cameo by Rhea Perlman). The event is presented as so momentous a replay of the opening of Kubrick's 2001, opening is used. Barbie was created to replace "baby" dolls, which encouraged girls to imagine being mothers, hence (supposedly) a kind of feminist step. But "baby" dolls interacted with children in a more real way. According to Willmore, Handler's adult doll creation may have been stolen from the German doll called "Bild Lilli," and a lawsuit was paid off later. In any case Barbie dolls or Ken dolls, though "aspirational," doubtless reaching for a market of older girls, are both only to be looked at or imagined in various roles. "Baby" dolls could be nursed and their diapers changed. Ken and Barbie dolls have no sex: they have not even gone through puberty. So the "progress" here is flawed. That's because this is product to safely make money.

Ken emerges as more interesting than Barbie. Ryan Gosling's Ken is more energetic - he steals the show. He must try harder, because Ken is an unimportant appendage - and more complex than Robbie's Barbie. In "Barbieland," Ken and Ken dolls don't really matter. Ken has no skills. When he tags along with Barbie on her putatively healing trip in the Real World, he can't get a job. One of his functions is "Beach," but that's an environment, not a function. He can't do the job of a lifeguard: can he even swim? But there's a way out. Ken is bland and attractive - and in Gosling's version ripplingly muscled - but neutered. Barbie has breasts but Ken has no penis. In his journey to the real world, Ken learns about the "Patriarchy" that Barbie's supposed to be armed against. He takes it back to what he renames "Kenland" in Barbie's absence and starts living a Bro life with other Kens. He may still have no genitalia, but he discovers machismo.

Alison Willmore nails the whole movie in herVulture review in a single sentence: "Barbie may be a pop-culture icon and an emblem for the inconsistent impulses stuffed into the concept of female empowerment, but more than anything else, hers is a story about money, and it’s impossible to separate what she means for women from her existence as a business proposition."

I'm clear that Oppenheimer left a strong impression that will inspire much pondering for a long time to come. Maybe Barbie, to be thoroughly evaluated, will require a second viewing, even if I'm not eager for one. Safe to say that the film, which has an all-Ken fantasy dance number, an ad for a sweatpants-wearing Depression Barbie, and America Ferrera as a Mattel employee named Gloria delivering a variation of the "cool girl" monologue from Gone Girl, is much weirder than you’d ever expect a Barbie motion picture to be. But it's still just not enough, and it's decisively tainted by clearly declaring itself from the first frames to be a promotional film for Mattel.

Barbie, 114 mins., debuted July 9, 2023 in Los Angeles, also premiering in London July 12. It opened in the Bay Area July 21, 2023.Screened at El Cerrito Rialto July 24. Metacritic [ rating: 80%.

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