In keeping with the traditions of this great organ – one of which is that any contributor can write upon any subject – I feel it incumbent upon me to begin today’s offering with the twin admissions that personally I am neither the Rust’s film correspondent, a title which rightly belongs to the venerable Neil Rosen, nor indeed myself much interested in films at all.
However, It so happens that as few days ago, quite by chance – just as we were preparing for yet another evening of “TV dinner plus telly” – the Memsahib and I were invited to join my stepdaughter and her partner on their expedition to the Vue cinema at Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quays to see the Barbie movie and decided to accept.
For those who recently may have been away from their TVs and smartphones (and/or in a coma), earlier this week Barbie – which stands alongside Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s biopic of the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, as 2023’s biggest blockbusters thus far – passed one of the movie industry’s most historic milestones by having already grossed over US$1 billion worldwide since its release on 21st July, thereby making its co-writer/director Greta Gerwig the first female (solo) director to achieve this feat.
As already mentioned I have never been an enthusiastic cinema-goer.
My antipathy began, many decades before the Covid pandemic came along, when I formed the view that such outings were heavily over-hyped and underwhelming experiences involving not least queuing, hugely-expensive refreshments and potentially hazardous exposure to barbarian-like hordes of the Great Unwashed British public.
My phobia on the last of these issues extends to any form of public transport. I recoil from the prospect of sharing enclosed public spaces with my fellow humans whose key instinctive actions appear to encompass openly coughing and sneezing in a manner deliberately designed to inconvenience and offend others, talking loudly (especially on phones), giving off unsavoury odours and spreading noxious bacteria upon everything they touch.
It is also one of my life burdens that I tend to believe every scare-story peddled in the media without question or quibble.
It was only about a year ago that I read on the website of Daily Mail that well-regarded scientific researchers were warning against anyone making use of the “blow-dry” machines now provided in public toilets as a supposedly far more sanitary way of drying one’s hands than paper towels or similar. Their common line was that all that public toilet “blow-dryers” do is circulate every form of bacteria present – including those containing faeces, urine, snot and indeed every form of human-carried germ imaginable – speedily and powerfully into the air and thence into the lungs of everyone who visits. Since then, after visiting public toilets, I have always walked back outside without drying my hands at all.
As it happens, like the time-honoured proverbial curate’s egg, Barbie the movie was “good in parts”.
First the in-house experience. Compared to my previous cinema visits of yesteryear, it was as if the interior of a Hillman Minx saloon car from the 1950s had been replaced by that of the latest movie edition of the Starship Enterprise.
The cinema auditorium was vast and well-spaced out. Our seats were just two rows back and bang-on centre in front of a screen about the size of Wembley Stadium.
And what seats they were! Though I have never flown First Class, I’ve walked through said area several times on a Boeing 747 and these were comparable with that aircraft’s.
Not only were they massive and luxuriously comfortable, they had surfaces perfectly placed on either side for housing one’s popcorn and soft drinks. They also had a space-age “customising” facility whereby one could e.g. recline backwards almost horizontally and/or have one’s feet supported – even at head height had one desired.
The noise level, delivered by a presumably quadrophonic amplifier sound system with its “base” facility apparently turned up to Spinal Tap’s fabled “11 out of 10”, (even during the quieter moments on screen) was borderline deafening.
But enough on the cinema experience – what of Barbie the movie?
Well, as a marketing exercise being mounted by Mattel, Barbie’s corporate owner, it clearly made sense and had plenty going for it, especially its budget (up to US$150 million if the reports I have seen are correct). This was an example of a classic, well-thought-out and well-executed, top entertainment conglomerate business project.
The three things any business which has set aside an eye-watering sum of money to fund a major project subsequently wants to avoid are: (1) then to preside over a chaotic and sprawling production process; (2) make poor decisions on the big issues not least the choice of talent – both in front of and behind the cameras; and finally (3) as is so easy to do, end up by spraying their loot in every direction to no ultimate cohesive effect.
In this case someone in authority made good choices on the writers, director and major acting talent.
When you think about it, which A-list movie star other Margot Robbie could possibly have played Barbie for a modern, three-generational, audience? She’s easy on the eye and an excellent actor, albeit perhaps an under-rated one precisely because of her looks.
I’m no particular fan of Ryan Gosling but he certainly shines here as a rather knowing and cynical version of Ken, Barbie’s vacuous boyfriend.
Both leads play their roles heavily laced with tongue-in-cheek abandon – as if in constant “fourth wall” contact with the audience – and somehow about 70% of the time it works.
The best line – and perhaps most telling moment – in the movie occurs after Barbie has been forced by circumstances to leave her make-believe world and enter the real one in order to further the action.
In a heartfelt speech she admits all her life she has never felt good or pretty enough to be the “perfect woman” that she has been to millions of little girls over the course of the past sixty years and more.
At which point the warm, reassuring voice of veteran English actress Helen Mirren (the narrator) whispers archly into the viewing audience’s collective ear: “Note to film makers – Margot Robbie is not the right person to cast to make this point”.
To sum up. For me as a senior citizen Barbie is a mish-mash of a movie with a variety of extravagant set pieces strung together with abandon and light pop music to match. Anyone looking for Anton Chekhov-like depth or insight should look elsewhere and I departed the building hosting a private feeling that I would never get back the 1 hour 54 minutes I spent watching it.
That said, as a project that almost certainly achieved everything that it set out to do, i.e. (principally) secure the project’s key character as a major one in the very different worlds of both toys for small children and cultural references for at least the next quarter of a century – it has to stand as an admirable and possibly exemplary piece of work.