“Barbie has a great day every day. Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”
Barbie’s opening riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey (seen in the teaser trailer) feels like a statement of intent: it is meaningless to children whilst establishing the themes of feminism and the doll’s historical context. Although Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are perfectly cast — each able to portray insecurity and heartache beneath the plastic veneer — director Greta Gerwig was the primary draw for me, because she is such a surprising choice for Mattel to entrust its most valuable brand. She and Noah Baumbach have penned a hugely ambitious script that grapples with identity, women’s liberation, corporate and social satire, and patriarchy within the framework of Barbie and Ken travelling to the real world. I have never seen cellulite used as a call to adventure before, but that is also where the themes begin to muddle. Early on we see how perfection can be its own prison, forcing Barbie to hide her existential crisis, yet her quest for most of the film is restoration of that “perfection”. There is pointed commentary, like the undertone of violence in the attention that Barbie receives in the real world by comparison to Ken. Most of the satire is gentle, however, the film needing to appease its corporate masters and appeal to a core audience which adores the toy. The production design and attention to detail (like a waterless shower) is exquisite, like The Lego Movie embracing the limitations of the toy. Arguably its strongest allegory is when Ken (who as a doll has no identity beyond Barbie’s himbo boyfriend) discovers on arrival in the real world that men can hold all manner of jobs and power, this reversal providing a stark illustration of how important Barbie’s representation of women can be for girls. Yet the narrative result is for Ken to introduce patriarchy to Barbieland and inexplicably succeed. A rant about the cognitive dissonance of being a woman (and, by extension, how it is impossible for a doll representing women to be liked) is astute but swiftly followed by the Barbies manipulating the Kens into turning on one another, culminating in a huge song and dance number (allowing Simu Liu to shine as a rival Ken). Thematically, it’s a bold and broad mess of competing ideas. The thing is, it’s all really entertaining. If superhero films can be praised for their entertainment value despite underdeveloped attempts at sociopolitical commentary, so too can Barbie.
“DC… the house that Batman built. Yeah, what, Superman? Come at me, bro.”
Arguing The Lego Batman Movie‘s ranking amongst DC movies is amusing, but more interesting is that applying The Lego Movie‘s tongue-in-cheek humour to Batman’s storied past has created DC’s closest big screen competitor to Deadpool. It takes swings equally at DC’s successes (Joker describing his plan as “better than the two boats”) and its failures (“What am I gonna do? Get a bunch of criminals together to fight the criminals? That’s a stupid idea.”), as well as highlighting the sociological flaws in supporting a billionaire vigilante. Will Arnett returns to voice Batman largely as a gruff and self-involved caricature. Though we see some loneliness and self-doubt beneath the cowl, it’s not written to be as nuanced as Arnett’s voice acting in the sublime Bojack Horseman. The Joker unsurprisingly takes a central role but the film takes full advantage of Batman’s extensive list of villains, as well as co-opting a few from other franchises with Lego deals. Director Chris McKay was the animation supervisor on The Lego Movie allowing for a seamless transition in visual identity with bright colours and showers of bricks as well as some impressively atmospheric lighting. The (constr)action, however, is far less creative which leads to a disappointingly forgettable third act that will cause fatigue as most adult viewers zone out.
“A huge earthquake happens, who do they rescue first? Actors. They’ll rescue Clooney, Sandra Bullock, me. If there’s room, you guys will come.”
If Ocean’s 12 was an excuse for Clooney and his actor friends to hang out at his Lake Como villa, This Is The End dispenses with the pretence entirely as Seth Rogan, James Franco and friends play themselves riding out the apocalypse at Franco’s house. The main cast toy with their public perception, though the film’s best conceit is the suggestion that, if the Rapture were to occur, no one at a Hollywood house party would notice. Most of the cameos are fun but forgettable, the standouts being those who play against type — a shameless Michael Cera and a violent Emma Watson. One imagines the general lack of female presence is a product of the fraternal nature of the friendship group behind This Is The End, but the near total absence of women is disappointing and to its detriment. The script is peppered with hilarity and entertaining moments strung together by lazy writing and tired gross-out humour. Comedies like this typically lose traction the longer they run but, despite frequently lagging in the middle and perhaps aided by a wafer-thin plot which requires little conclusion, the film closes surprisingly strongly, leaving a better overall impression than I would have expected halfway through.
“You know what makes you feel okay about losing? Winning.”
Aaron Sorkin is one of a rare breed of screenwriters whose name can be the biggest draw in a film. Fans will be pleased by his signature style of sharp, rapid dialogue, applied here to the based-on-true events story of a woman who ran a high-stakes underground poker game, expertly using the tempo of language to build and relieve tension. Sorkin’s directorial debut, his approach is assured but not particularly noteworthy, with some unnecessarily convoluted time jumping. Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba both excel.