Best-selling Barbie doll triggers a pink geyser of money
So intense has been the publicity/advertising run-up to the Warner/Mattel candy-mobile Barbie that less wary members of its prospective audience may wonder what makes it worth the hype. What’s so special about a loud, energetic, ultra-colorful summer movie devoted to a plaything for girls (and of course, boys too) that’s been in toy stores since 1959?
Director Gerwig, co-writer Noah Baumbach, actor Margot Robbie, the film’s producers and platoons of flacks have devoted reams of copy and an avalanche of images to this particular product, clogging up the internet and media outlets so thoroughly that a visitor from another planet – a Barbie-free planet – might be convinced that nothing else taking place on Earth is half as important.
The significant factor that presumably separates Barbie from the similarly heavily merchandised antics of Marvel/DC comics super-heroes, Transformers, Toy Story holdovers, rubbery mega-monsters and horny hotrods is that the thing herself, Barbie, seems to be suffering from a crisis of confidence, a psychological/philosophical predicament. “What does it all mean?” wonders the insanely happy, gadget-and-wardrobe crazy, anatomically impossible, best-selling figurine.
Despite her never having to drink a glass of water or take a shower, a few cracks are starting to show in Barbie’s sunny, carefree demeanor. In common with thousands of fictional protagonists before her, the otherwise flawless blond (Robbie) is plagued by doubt. She even admits to herself a fear of death. None of the other inhabitants of Barbie Land offer our doll any remedy.
The Barbies – they’re all named Barbie – still throng to the beach en masse and have a slumber party every night, and Ken (Ryan Gosling), the ur-type conspicuous-consumer male designated as “Barbie’s boyfriend,” is shrink-wrapped in harmless machismo. All his fantasies revolve around horses and a man cave called the Mojo Dojo Casa House, mostly because he and Barbie have never had sex. Barbie is left alone with only her insecurity to keep her company.
On the way to her epiphany, though, Barbie discovers unexpected kindred spirits, among them harried mom Gloria (America Ferrara), Gloria’s wised-up teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) and surprisingly, Ruth (Rhea Perlman), a character modeled on the creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler. These grounded avatars awaken suppressed feelings – the suppression was designed into her by the Mattel CEO (a frothing Will Ferrell) – that surge to the surface in Barbie’s key dialogue scene. It’s a show-stopper, a rousing declaration of her humanity.
But even that mission statement rings a little hollow in the face of the bumptious spectacle of life in Barbie Land. Barbie’s spiritual odyssey – featuring a few political barbs on the subject of equal rights – is a bit corny, especially when pasted into the gaudy explosion of plastic “fun” all around her. Gerwig fans would probably like to believe that if she really had her way, the frantic carnival would be dialed down to make room for Barbie’s “awakening,” which is very basic and personal.
Gerwig and Baumbach are intelligent creators. They’ll recover from this. And Mattel will most certainly move millions of units behind the manic spritz. But this film is not going to either reassure curious audiences about the facts of life, nor entertain casual viewers trying to connect the dots between Robbie’s live-wire sensuality and the apologetic tone of the movie’s denouement. Barbie was doomed from the start.