Synopsis: Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) leads a pretty great life in Barbieland. Every morning she wakes up in her Dreamhouse and hangs out with her friends in the day before partying with them at night. That is, until one day she becomes plagued by intrusive thoughts of death, which begin to derail her perfect life and force her to seek the counsel of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who sends her on a quest to the Real World to seek her owner. In the Real World, Barbie must deal with the CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell), who wants nothing more than to (literally) put her back in the box, the squabbling mother-daughter duo of Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), and a minor inconvenience called the patriarchy. Oh, and Ken’s (Ryan Gosling) there too.
1. Let’s start with a thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, that you are a filmmaker named … Greta G. No, that’s too obvious. Let’s say G Gerwig. You have successfully transitioned from indie film screen icon to indie film directorial rising star. Your movies get Oscar nominations. Their average Rotten Tomatoes score starts with ‘9’. Some jagoff really, really likes them. And one day you are approached by one of the hottest movie stars in the world. Her production company has purchased the rights to make a Barbie movie. Y’know, the doll? And she wants you to make it. You, the toast of the A24-Mubi-Criterion crowd, making a Barbie movie. Have I also mentioned that the IP has been in development hell for over a decade, bouncing between various studios and creatives because nobody can come up with a workable idea for ‘the Barbie movie’? Y’know, the doll? There’s almost nothing to gain and everything to lose from saying yes. Contemporary Hollywood is littered with the corpses of indie filmmakers who reached for that multimillion dollar studio summit only for their careers to die of altitude sickness. Even if you make something that people like, the chance of putting any of yourself into a cynical cash-grab like this is infinitesimal. Saying ‘yes’ would be insane. But … maybe you could Trojan horse an actual bona fide feminist film beneath a sparkly pink veneer. Maybe you could take that sparkly pink veneer, so derided by generations of men and women, and celebrate it. And maybe, just maybe, you could take that cynical cash-grab and turn it into a real auteur project, except this time you have a multimillion dollar budget and one of the most famous movie stars on the planet. But you’d have to do it through Barbie. Y’know, the doll? There is no way this could work, right?
2. I spent the whole of my last review talking about the sheer scope of Oppenheimer, which through a quirk of scheduling 1 has been released on the same day as Barbie, resulting in the Internet going hogwild for the memetastic potential of ‘Barbenheimer’. After all, could you possibly imagine two more different films releasing on the same day? Well guess what, hot take alert, because I’m here to tell you that they aren’t! Ok fine, they actually are, but they share one vital similarity – ambition. Barbie could have been the aforementioned cynical cash-grab, or maybe even one of those snarky self-aware reboots popularised by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. 2 Instead, what Gerwig serves up is … a feminist critique of patriarchal norms and their effect on BOTH men and women with a heavy dash of existentialist musings on the meaning of life? And it just so happens to be one of the funniest, most entertaining movies of the year? How?
3. Well the foundation of any good film (and this is a great film) is its screenplay, and Gerwig (plus writing/life partner Noah Baumbach) deliver on that front. There is more than a touch of screwball comedy in Barbie, with Gerwig’s signature overlapping dialogue firing punchline after punchline, from ribald jokes about the dolls’ genital situation to tossed-off references about some of the many, many bad ideas that the Mattel corporation have had over the decades. This thing’s got jokes out the wazoo, and there’s a delightful specificity to all of Gerwig’s references. As an aging hipster millennial cishet man, the parts where the red-pilled Kens mansplain the aesthetic significance of The Godfather (1972) and the way Steven Malkmus was inspired by Lou Reed made me feel seen. And judged, but still, seen. 3 Beyond the references, the way Gerwig and Baumbach phrase their jokes is note-perfect, with the best joke coming from a single weaponised preposition. The specificity of the dialogue is important because it makes this movie feel like an oasis in the desert of its blockbuster ilk, that it was written by a person (fine, people) rather than by committee, and much of that comes from the sense that so many of these lines feel like observations that Gerwig has filed away in her head for the right moment. Somehow, she makes this multimillion dollar movie feel personal.
4. But the screenplay is only one ingredient that makes Barbie a zippy, quippy delight, with the production design and cinematography a clear standout. This is an immensely colourful experience, and the sheer level of detail that has gone into every facet of production design in Barbieland is mindboggling, from the mix of retro and modern costuming to the deliberately artificial old-Hollywood style backdrops to the fact that Barbie’s car is too small for her (as befitting a doll), all emphasised by Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, which makes these details and colours practically pop out of the screen. I’m not well-versed enough in Barbie lore to speak on how accurate everything is, but Gerwig and her designers have clearly taken pride in their fidelity to the toys, down to literally labelling for the audience the specific costumes. The most amazing thing is how real everything feels, thanks to a clear insistence on using practical sets and effects (another similarity it shares with Oppenheimer), thus avoiding the weightlessness associated with CGI. There is a world where Barbie is filmed almost entirely on a green screen it is not one I want to live in. Aside from the toys themselves, Barbie‘s production design also calls to mind the lavish French (particularly the work of Jacques Demy and Tati) and Hollywood studio extravaganzas of the 60s and 70s, with Grease being very clearly referenced at one point. Even the ‘real world’ has an air of heightened artifice to it, with the Mattel-set scenes calling to mind the surreal bureaucracy of something like Brazil (1985). If I have one complaint, it is that the car chase scene completely breaks the aesthetic coherence (and the narrative momentum), feeling completely out of place both visually and dramatically, as though a Chevrolet commercial starring Margot Robbie just got inserted midway through the film. For a movie that is so savvy about navigating its corporate constraints, this is a baffling misstep.
5. Speaking of missteps, can you believe there were naysayers when Ryan Gosling was cast as Ken? Too old, too brooding, too literally me – could these statements be any more wrong? I’m old enough to remember when the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker led to online sneering about how he would be terrible because he was just a ‘pretty boy’, and that’s pretty much how wrong anyone who doubted Gosling is. Casting him was already a stroke of genius thanks to the fact that he has played multiple symbols of contemporary masculinity – stoic, angsty, violent, tormented men. Well, let’s add one more to that list, except Gosling’s Ken is a distorted mirror image of what’s come before, skewering and satirising all the masculine signifiers that his previous films valourised 4. But yet it would be untrue to call Ken the film’s ‘antagonist’. Nominally it may be the case, but part of the genius of Barbie is how it gives Ken his own fully fleshed-out narrative arc, and genuinely empathises with his sense of rejection and insecurity, even as it criticises the ways in which he chooses to lash out. The end of the film especially provides a deeply empowering lesson to him, and by extension, the many young men who have been suckered in by manosphere grifters 5 into thinking that they can only feel fulfilled and secure by subjugating women. I am Kenough, indeed. Of course, the biggest reason why Ken cannot be called the villain of the movie is Gosling’s performance, which can only be described as committed. He nails every punchline, he sings, he dances, every action with his face and his body just feels so perfectly calibrated for maximum effect, be it humour or pathos or irony. It’s a wondrous performance by one of the most interesting actors working today, and it almost steals the entire movie.
6. But it doesn’t, and that’s because of the woman in the centre of it all. This is a passion project for Margot Robbie as much as it is for Greta Gerwig. She bought the rights to the IP, pitched it to Warner Bros, recruited Gerwig and Baumbach to write (and direct in the former’s case), and based off behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt, fought for Gerwig’s vision and creative freedom every step of the way, including its feminist perspective and the candid criticism of Mattel. Oh, and this should go without saying, but she’s brilliant in this. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but Robbie’s sex symbol/bombshell status has always obscured what a genuinely phenomenal actor she is. She carries the movie so hard in what is an intensely difficult role to play, needing to be human enough but not too much, because y’know – doll. Much of the film’s existential musings on the meaning of life are also conveyed through Robbie’s deeply emotive performance, and there is a moment on a bus stop which might have come across as patronising or ludicrous in the hands of a less skilled performer, but through Robbie, it becomes poetry. The rest of the massive cast does generally excellent work, with Issa Rae and Simu Liu standing out among the Barbies and Kens respectively. A word of praise too for Michael Cera, who utilises his gawky comic charm to maximum effect as Ken’s consistently overlooked best friend Allan. Among the ‘humans’, Will Ferrell does his usual schtick, Ariana Greenblatt is a convincing sullen teenage girl who not-so-secretly loves her mom, and America Ferrara …
7. Look, she tries, ok? She tries really hard, and does about as good a job as she can under the circumstances. ‘The circumstances’, however, are the one sour note in this largely harmonious symphony, and that is that Ferrara’s Gloria is an absolute nothing of a character. This is a problem, to put it lightly. Gloria is supposed to be a major character – her existential angst kickstarts the plot, and she literally speaks the film’s thesis statement to the audience. But she never feels like anything more than a plot device, with so little attention paid on her life. Much of why Gloria feels dissatisfied is told to the audience instead of shown, and it’s mindboggling to me why the film would, as previously mentioned, tack on a pointless car chase scene when that time could have been much better spent fleshing out her life. Maybe we could actually see the barrage of microaggressions a woman of colour would have to tolerate in order to make it in the corporate world. Or perhaps even have the full scene of her playing and projecting her feelings onto Barbie instead of handwaving it via montage. In general, I love the way in which Barbie handwaves much of its narrative contrivances, and does not get bogged down in pointless MacGuffin chasing or reams of exposition just to satisfy the ‘muh plot hole’ crowd because 1. that shit is boring and 2. it means we actually can get to the fireworks factory much quicker. But the veracity of Gloria’s lived experience is something rooted in the emotional and thematic foundation of the movie, and cannot just be simply yadda-yaddaed away in order for the character to feel impactful. It is a genuine misstep, and one that I cannot overlook regardless of how much I loved the rest of the film.
8. And there are a number of other more debatable aspects of Barbie that I could possibly pick over. Is Greta Gerwig’s gentleness and optimism a double-edged sword that robs the film of satirical bite? Does the film ever rise above its straitjacket of being essentially corporate advertising? Should Barbie be lauded for simply being Feminism 101 … actually I can answer that one. Of course, you dummies, 101 courses are important! Teenage girls (and boys) and children are going to watch this movie! What exactly did you want, for Margot Robbie to read Gender Trouble or The World’s Wife for 114 minutes? 6 And responses like this do somewhat go back to the central issue raised in the first paragraph – what exactly were we expecting of the fucking Barbie movie? If you’ve read more than one review on this website, then you know that I have complained (and will continue to) ad nauseum about the utter wasteland that is the current blockbuster landscape. As I said in my previous review, barring a few outliers (Nolan, Peele, and now Gerwig), it’s nothing but recycled and regurgitated trash all the way down – capeshit, CGI, and (shudder) ‘franchises’. And here we have a genuinely original vision that has mountains of ambition, that aims to say something meaningful and personal, crafted with no shortage of care and cleverness, and yet the temptation still very much exists to pick it to pieces and compare it to the mythical perfect Barbie movie in my head. As far as I’m concerned, ambition and originality go a long long way, and I’d much rather have a movie like this that swings hard for the fences but doesn’t quite hit all its goals 7 than yet another helping of the mushy grey paste Hollywood passes off as nourishment. I had originally planned to end off by saying that I hope Hollywood takes the right lessons from the Barbenheimer phenomenon – that empowering talented filmmakers to make original and personal projects will enthuse and excite audiences – but as I write this, not only is there no seeming end to the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes 8, but Mattel have announced the launch of a (sigh) ‘Mattel Cinematic Universe’, including movies based on (double sigh) ‘Uno’, the (triple sigh) ‘Magic 8 Ball’, and (climate change please just end our blighted civilisation now) a ‘Polly Pocket’ movie that will star Lily Collins and be directed by Lena Dunham. Of course the studios and the empty suits that run them have taken the wrong lessons from this, because that’s what they do. But I don’t want to end off on such a low note, so I’ll just say this. Barbie may be flawed, but it’s an entertaining breath of fresh air that is excellently crafted and deeply important in its goal to actually communicate meaningful ideas to a mass audience. The fact that it will likely cross the billion-dollar threshold also has to be a feather in the cap of Greta Gerwig, who will probably have a blank cheque and unlimited creative freedom to pick and develop her next project. In less than a decade, she has gone from indie film screen icon to indie film directorial rising star to bona fide superstar filmmaker, and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next. Hail to the queen, baby.
Verdict: Highly Recommended
- Or, if you’re conspiracy-minded, a not-too-subtle way for Warner Bros to say ‘fuck you’ to Christopher Nolan for taking his talents to Universal.
- Think 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie.
- The best of these references is an absolute humdinger about a specific filmmaker’s specific movie, and while I won’t spoil it, let’s just say that Gerwig picked the perfect signifier of toxic masculinity.
- What wouldn’t I have given to see Ken in that scorpion jacket.
- You know the main one, but I’m not saying his name.
- Truth be told, I’d kinda be into that, but I think the screening I was in would have been a lot less packed.
- Like Oppenheimer.
- Which are driven at least in part because the fucking studios want to use AI to write scripts, which would of course mean even less originality and personality.