“Barbie” Movie Review: SHE Means Business
Barbie is a riotously entertaining candy-coloured feminist fable that manages simultaneously to celebrate, satirize and deconstruct its happy-plastic subject.
Can a doll with an ingratiating smile, impossible curves and boobs ready for liftoff be a feminist icon? That’s a question that swirls through Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” a live-action, you-go-girl fantasia about the world’s most famous doll. For more than half a century, Barbie has been, by turns, celebrated as a font of girlhood pleasure and play, and rebuked as an instrument of toxic gender norms and consumerist ideals of femininity. If Barbie has been a culture-war hot spot for about as long as it’s been on the shelves, it’s because the doll perfectly encapsulates changing ideas about girls and women: our Barbies, ourselves.
"Barbie," director and co-writer Greta Gerwig’s summer splash, is a dazzling achievement, both technically and in tone. It’s a visual feast that succeeds as both a gleeful escape and a battle cry. So crammed with impeccable attention to detail that you couldn’t possibly catch it all in a single sitting; you’d have to devote an entire viewing just to the accessories alone. It’s not just that Gerwig and her team have recreated a bunch of Barbies from throughout her decades-long history, outfitted them with a variety of clothing and hairstyles, and placed them in pristine dream houses. It’s that they’ve brought these figures to life with infectious energy and a knowing wink.
At times, “Barbie” can be hysterically funny, with giant laugh-out-loud moments generously scattered throughout. They come from the insularity of an idyllic, pink-hued realm and the physical comedy of fish-out-of-water moments and chosen pop culture references as the outside world increasingly encroaches. But because the film's marketing campaign has been so clever and so ubiquitous, you may discover that you’ve already seen a fair amount of the movie’s inspired moments, such as the “2001: A Space Odyssey” homage and Ken’s self-pitying ‘80s power ballad. Such is the anticipation industrial complex. And so, you probably already know the basic plot: Barbie (Margot Robbie), the most popular of all the Barbies in Barbieland, begins experiencing an existential crisis. She must travel to the human world in order to understand herself and discover her true purpose. Her kinda-sorta boyfriend, Ken (Ryan Gosling), comes along for the ride because his own existence depends on Barbie acknowledging him. Both discover harsh truths—and make new friends –along the road to enlightenment. This bleeding of stark reality into an obsessively engineered fantasy calls to mind the revelations of “The Truman Show” and “The LEGO Movie,” but through a wry prism that’s specifically Gerwig’s.
Not without backlash
There are jokes about the red pill from “The Matrix”, the snow globe from “Citizen Kane”, the male ‘meaning’ of Coppola’s “The Godfather”, and fanboyish emotional overinvestment in Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of “Justice League”. Yet Barbie is never anything less than inclusive – meaning that young(ish) fans raised on such animated staples as “Barbie in the Nutcracker” and “Barbie of Swan Lake” will find as much to cheer about as wizened old critics looking for smart film references. Like her terrific 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, Gerwig’s latest has no intention of ditching its source material’s core audience, even while allowing those with snootier cinephile tastes to excuse their enjoyment of her film by comparing it with canonical works.
This is a movie that acknowledges Barbie’s unrealistic physical proportions—and the kinds of very real body issues they can cause in young girls—while also celebrating her role as a feminist icon. After all, there was an astronaut Barbie doll (1965) before there was an actual woman in NASA’s astronaut corps (1978), an achievement “Barbie” commemorates by showing two suited-up women high-fiving each other among the stars, with Robbie’s Earth-bound Barbie saluting them with a sunny, “Yay, space!” This is also a movie in which Mattel (the doll’s manufacturer) and Warner Bros. (the film’s distributor) at least create the appearance that they’re in on the surprisingly pointed jokes at their expense. Mattel headquarters features a spacious, top-floor conference room populated solely by men with a heart-shaped, “Dr. Strangelove”-inspired lamp hovering over the table, yet Will Ferrell’s CEO insists his company’s “gender-neutral bathrooms up the wazoo” are evidence of diversity. It's a neat trick.
As the film's star, Margot Robbie finds just the right balance between satire and sincerity. She’s the perfect casting choice; it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed stunner completely looks the part, of course, but she also radiates the kind of unflagging, exaggerated optimism required for this heightened, candy-coated world. Later, as Barbie’s understanding expands, Robbie masterfully handles the more complicated dialogue by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. From a blinding smile to a single tear and every emotion in between, Robbie finds the ideal energy and tone throughout. Her performance is a joy to behold. And yet, Ryan Gosling is a consistent scene-stealer as he revels in Ken’s himbo frailty. He goes from Barbie’s needy beau to a swaggering, macho doofus as he throws himself headlong into how he thinks a real man should behave. Gosling sells his square-jawed character’s earnestness and gets to tap into his “All New Mickey Mouse Club” musical theatre roots simultaneously. He’s a total hoot. Within the film’s enormous ensemble—where the women are all Barbies and the men are all Kens, with a couple of exceptions—there are several standouts. They include a gonzo Kate McKinnon as the so-called “Weird Barbie” who places Robbie’s character on her path; Issa Rae as the no-nonsense President Barbie; Alexandra Shipp as a kind and capable Doctor Barbie; Simu Liu as the trash-talking Ken who torments Gosling’s Ken; Michael Cera as the one Allan, bumbling awkwardly in a sea of hunky Kens—although everyone else forgets Allan.
And of course, America Ferrera in a crucial role as a Mattel employee. Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt play a frazzled mother and her sardonic teen daughter, who've drifted apart over time. The mother fills her days at her boring Mattel office job by doodling alternative Barbies, ones plagued by cellulite or haunted by thoughts of death. Her feminist daughter is dismissive of everything Barbie represents, dressing down Robbie with a pointed sneer. Ferrera admirably delivers one of the film's biggest emotional speeches, that lays out the many ways in which women are forever in conflict with themselves and within their societies. It's righteous, bold-faced point-making, but “Barbie” is not interested in becoming a polemic. Gerwig simply urges her characters, and her audience, toward accepting that the world is tricky and broken but also beautiful and that the best way to be in it is by simply being yourself, whoever that may be.
“Barbie” pushes its hero, Ken, into that exploration and then leaves them to it, dropping all the clashes over patriarchy and corporate feminism in favour of a palatable message about individualism. Which, sure. What was a Barbie movie supposed to do, solve misogyny? Gerwig knows that her movie can really only tickle and mildly provoke; it’s mostly there to be amusing. And it is, albeit more gently than I think was intended.
The costume design (led by two-time Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran) and production design (led by six-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood) are constantly clever and colourful, befitting the ever-evolving icon, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (a three-time Oscar nominee) gives everything a glossy gleam. Gerwig handles the transition between realms smoothly, but even in this bouncy, happy movie, reality proves a bummer. It’s amusing when Barbie points out a billboard filled with women, mistaking them for the Supreme Court because that’s what the court looks like in Barbie Land, just with more pink. She learns how wrong she was, which is to Gerwig’s point. But the weight of our world, emblematized at least for this viewer by the real US Court’s overturning of ‘Roe v. Wade’, proves unbearably heavy. However politically sharp, the gag is an unpleasant reminder of all the profoundly unfunny ways in which this world, with its visible and invisible hands, tries to control women, putting them into little boxes.
A critique of the legendary doll
Far from being a feature-length commercial for Barbie, Gerwig’s movie puts in bright critical light the trouble with Barbie’s pure, blank perfection. Instead of projecting their own imperfections or thoughts onto the doll, girls have been socialized to strive for an impossible doll-like perfection in their own lives. Barbie can be anything in Barbieland—a doctor, a President, an astronaut. There’s no Fox News in Barbieland, no political demagogy, no religion, and no culture. Any girl who plays with Barbie and imagines that she can do anything will discover, eventually, that she’s been the victim of a noxious fantasy. Playing weird with Barbie means ascribing the tangled terms of one’s own environment to Barbieland, and one’s own conflicts to Barbie. It means turning Barbie human—into a character a child can use to give voice to an inner life, in the second person, when her first person feels stifled or repressed.
“Ordinary”: Pay attention to the arrival, in “Barbie,” of that word, which reverberates like a tuning fork through the entire story, conveying the longing for the day when a woman’s life doesn’t demand heroic struggle against societal limitations and contradictory demands. The idea inflects Gerwig’s aesthetic, too, in a way that’s made clear, again, in the contrast between her filmmaking and that of Wes Anderson, the current cinema’s preeminent stylist. Anderson’s films borrow copiously from pop culture without making films of pop culture; his rigorous visual compositions set the action at a contemplative distance that keeps one eye on history and the other on the future. Gerwig, by contrast, is out to conquer the moment, and her visual compositions reflect this immediacy. Her images (with cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto) offer, in effect, a mighty sense of style without a corresponding sense of form: they teem and overflow because they’re meant not to be limited to the screen but to burst out and fill the theatre and take their place in the world at large. She doesn’t borrow pop culture ironically; she embraces it passionately and directly to transform it, thereby transforming viewers’ relationship with it and rendering that relationship active, critical, and non-nostalgic. Her art of reinterpreting society’s looming, shiny cultural objects, in the interest of progress, dramatizes the connection between playing in a child’s doll house and on the big screens of the world.
Never doubt WOMEN. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Greta Gerwig has crafted a fierce, funny, and deeply feminist adventure that dares you to laugh and cry, even if you're made of plastic. It's certainly the only summer blockbuster to pair insightful criticisms of the wage gap with goofy gags about Kens threatening to "beach" each other off. Still, Barbie works hard to entertain both 11-year-old girls and the parents who bring them to the theatre. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach packed the entire screenplay with winking one-liners, the kind that rewarded a rewatch. The fear is that Hollywood will learn the wrong message from “Barbie”, rushing to green-light films about every toy gathering dust on a kid's playroom floor. But it's Gerwig's care and attention to detail that gives “Barbie” an actual point of view, elevating it beyond every other cynical, IP-driven cash grab. It turns out that life in plastic really can be fantastic.