Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Summer ’23: How BARBENHEIMER Rose Above All The Flopbusters

m most likely the last person who writes about film to weigh in on BARBIE, Greta Gerwig’s billions-grossing fantasy comedy, but since the season is winding down, I thought I’d opine at how it, and its odd blockbuster bedfellow, OPPENHEIMER became a huge event, or even a movement this last summer at the cinema (or more aptly, the multiplex).

The build-up to the release date (July 21) for both films prompted many memes, fake trailers, and a lot of op-ed action to comically address the internet phenomenon that was dubbed BARBENHEIMER (it even has a Wikipedia page!), as it seemed everyone thought it was so hilarious that two such polar opposites were opening on the same day.

Christopher Nolan’s OPPENHEIMER was the true winner artistically as it’s a must-see-on-the-big-screen masterpiece (read my review), but while BARBIE was far from an essential work, it’s a fairly fun piece of satire. A radiant Margot Robbie, as “Stereotypical Barbie,” perfectly brings to life the first ever live-action version of the Mattel model doll, who lives in the surreal Barbieland, a largely pink, plastic world populated by discontinued Barbies - the identifying of which, like Video Girl Barbie, Barbie’s friend, Pregnant Midge; and Sugar Daddy Ken, is a running joke throughout the film (aided by Helen Mirren as “The Narrator” - another nice touch).

With both the charm of his sympathy, and his stupidity, Ryan Gosling’s Ken more than holds his own with Robbie’s Barbie, and may even get more laughs. The premise, which deals with Barbie beginning to become human, and journeying to the real world (present-day Los Angeles) to find the troubled little girl whose influence on her doll brought on Barbie’s existential crisis (something like that), is pretty basic fish-out-of-the-water stuff, but it moves along briskly gag to gag.

Will Ferrell, in a role that could be his character from THE LEGO MOVIE, but I bet that’s just wishful thinking, plays the Mattel CEO bad guy here with an all-male (not true in real life) Board of Directors. A mostly funny Ferrell’s loud bluster bounces around the lavish boardroom, another example of Sarah Greenwood’s excellent production design, that calls upon the War Room in DR. STRANGELOVE. That’s actually the second Kubrick reference on display as the movie opens with a hilarious parody of the apes at the dawn of time sequence at the start of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

However, it did feel a bit padded with a chase sequence through a maze through corporate office cubicles before heading into more standard automobile activity that could’ve been cut completely, and not made a difference - especially as the movie is nearly 2 hours. Also, as funny as Gosling’s big number “I’m Just Ken” is, it felt uneven in that the movie seemed to decide to become a musical in its last third.

One of BARBIE’s most controversial moments comes in the form of a fiery America Ferrera as Gloria, a Mattel employee who unites with our heroine, and accompanies her back to Barbieland. Ferrera gives a speech, more like a rant, about the struggle of being a woman in a man’s world - sample line: “You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining.”

Ferrera’s mouthful (which you can read in full here) is effectively edgy, yet heartfelt part of the film, 
but that didn’t stop many on the right to condemn BARBIE as a preachy, man-hating piece of left-wing propaganda. One such dickhead, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who called the film, “the most woke movie I’ve ever seen,” actually set a trashcan of Barbie toys on fire to make, uh, some point. If you’re glutton for punishment, you can watch Shapiro’s 43-minute review, which features him setting what looks like a few hundred dollars of Barbies ablaze.

An over-used expression these days by Shapiro, and many of the folks at Fox News, is “if you go woke, you go broke,” but the incredible success of BARBIE proves that to be B.S., just like just about every rule that anybody makes about going woke. Sure, it can be seen as just a silly spoof of a toy for little girls, but Gerwig, and co-writer (and her long-time partner) Noah Baumbach had some layers they wanted to playfully explore, and it makes for a movie that’s sure to be a repeated, and relished part of pop culture for a long, long time.

But while the double bill of BARBENHEIMER is the big hit of our hottest ever summer, there was another notable phenomenon, that being that this has been the era of the flopbuster. Sometimes, as the Urban Dictonary defines it, a flopbuster is a movie that was supposed to be a blockbuster but flopped at the box office, other times, it’s a terrible movie that still makes lots of money.

This summer was jammed packed with flopbusters including THE FLASH, INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY (read my review), HAUNTED MANSION (my review), and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING PART I. As people were probably burned out, or felt burned, by Indy since his last, much lambasted adventure, or passed on Cruise’s latest mission while ignoring its acclaim, and turned their nose up at THE FLASH, like I did, despite it containing the return of Michael Keaton’s Batman, it seems obvious why audiences opted instead for the brainer/no-brainer combo that is BARBENHEIMER.

In the wake of the success of BARBIE, it was announced that Lena Dunham, of HBO’s Girls fame, was going to make a movie based on Mattel’s ‘90s mini-doll “Polly Pocket.” Actor/writer/director Randall Park had a great reaction to that:

“Barbie is this massive blockbuster, and the idea is: Make more movies about toys! No - make more movies by and about women!”

Now, is that really so woke an idea?

More later…

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