Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Robert Pattinson, who is an underrated performer and, for my money, a consistently spectacular interviewee, once said this about method acting: “You only ever see people do the method when they’re playing a**holes. You never see someone being lovely to everyone while they’re really deep in character.”
In general, I agree. I find it hard to believe that Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker in “Suicide Squad” truly depended on his sending his costar a dead pig, as Viola Davis told Vanity Fair he did. I have nothing but pity for the crew of “My Left Foot,” who were reportedly forced to push Daniel Day-Lewis around in a wheelchair and spoon-feed him his meals in the service of his Oscar-winning performance as Christy Brown, a painter who had cerebral palsy. Method acting has always been indulgent, selfish and too often seems to involve torturing everyone in the vicinity. Until now.
Everything changed when Ryan Gosling, the twice-Oscar-nominated star of “Half Nelson,” “La La Land,” “The Notebook,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Drive” was sent the script for Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” movie. The film depicts Ken as pure superficiality, the acme beta man who exists only under the glow of Margot Robbie’s Barbie gaze. After reading it, Gosling told Jimmy Fallon, he walked out into the backyard where he discovered his daughter’s Ken doll “face down in the mud.” He immediately texted Gerwig a photo, writing: “I shall be your Ken, for this story must be told.” (CNN shares a parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery, with the distributor for “Barbie.”)
Gosling’s commitment to Ken since that moment has been marvelous to behold. His platinum, almost white-bleached hair has lit up every interview, radiating the “Kenergy” he references like punctuation. Asked by one reporter how we might “find our Kenergy,” Gosling replied without missing a beat: “It’s there the whole time… Look no further. You are Kenough.”
His sincerity never lapses. Gosling is clearly aware that an iota of side-eye would shatter the performance. To sell Ken in all his glory, he must deliver full idiotic authenticity — with an earnestness that punctures the adamantine choreography of the “Barbie” publicity machine. Alongside Robbie’s impeccable themed wardrobe, the pink billboards, the eerily faithful lifesize Malibu dreamhouse Airbnb and endless licensing deals, Gosling’s Kenergy is unwavering, at once utterly genuine and the frivolous pinnacle of the whole charade.
My suspicion that Ken might be the entire point of this film, the Alpha and the Omega, was confirmed soon after I sat down to watch it in a rammed screening in Leicester Square earlier this week. After reminding us of our obligation to tweet the living hell out of what we were about to see, the PR ambassador husbanding the proceedings bid us a strange farewell. “Hi Barbie,” she giggled with a wave, wrist locked, hand stiff. “Hi Ken!” We sat bemused. “You’ll get it when you see the movie,” she assured us.
The minute or so of silence before the movie began was saturated with intrigue. “Barbie” coverage had been omnipresent for weeks. Thirty-second soupçons — including Robbie and Gosling’s Barbie/Ken greetings — were already canon. We were as familiar with them as we were with the riff from Dua Lipa’s song “Dance The Night” (from “Barbie The Album”), and the immediately iconic image of Robbie’s arched feet stepping out of Barbie’s fluffy pink pumps. Did they pertain to some deeper truth? Was the very meaning of “hello” about to be upended?
Of course it wasn’t. The movie’s got a nice enough “let girls be what they want” message that’s hammered home in the third act, but because there’s nothing new about that, it’s not what resonates. The most fun, most joyful parts of the movie were exactly those you’d have guessed — the waterless showers and glassless mirrors of Barbie World, the dance party at Barbie’s dreamhouse and, of course, Ken. Ken, whose job is “beach,” and isn’t even trained to be a lifeguard. Ken, who goes “literally nowhere” without his roller blades, and who breaks into a passionate ballad entitled “I’m Just Ken” (chorus: “And I’m enough, and I’m great at doing stuff”) out of nowhere.
In becoming Ken, Gosling dashed one of Hollywood’s most tedious clichés, proving that it is possible to transform into a marshmallow-for-brains “himbo” without turning into an egomaniacal nightmare. As the absolute best thing about “Barbie,” he also proved that if your movie is about superficial things, it’s better to celebrate those things, rather than superimpose depth.
As we got up to leave the screening, a friend and I compared notes. I searched myself. “I didn’t feel anything,” I mused. “Did you need to?” my friend replied, reasonably. “It’s Barbie! I laughed out loud several times, that’s enough!” She was right, of course. The final 15 minutes of capital “M” meaning were not really the point. “Barbie” has no heart, but it has a sweet, candy-colored core. By the next morning, that was all that’d stuck. “I’m just Ken,” I hummed, as I turned the shower on.