Playing with dolls proves inventive, hilarious, intelligent and delightful for Greta Gerwig, Margot Robbie and a scene-stealing Ryan Gosling.
July 20, 2023
No one plays with a Barbie too hard when the Mattel product is fresh out of the box. As that new doll smell lingers, and the toy's synthetic limbs gleam and locks glisten, so does a child's sense of wonder. The more that the world-famous mass-produced figurine is trotted through DreamHouses, slipped into convertibles and decked out in different outfits, though — then given non-standard makeovers — the more that playing with the plastic fashion model becomes fantastical. Like globally beloved item, like live-action movie bearing its name. Barbie, the film, starts with glowing aesthetic perfection. It's almost instantly a pink-hued paradise for the eyes, and it's also a cleverly funny flick from its 2001: A Space Odyssey-riffing outset. The longer that it continues, however, the harder and wilder that Lady Bird and Little Women director Greta Gerwig goes, as does her Babylon and Amsterdam star lead-slash-producer Margot Robbie as Barbie.
In Barbie's Barbie Land, life is utopian. Robbie's Stereotypical Barbie and her fellow dolls genuinely believe that their rosy beachside suburban excellence is infectious, too. And, they're certain that their female-championing realm — and them being female champions of all skills, talents and appearances — has changed the real world inhabited by humans. But there's a Weird Barbie living in a misshapen abode. While she isn't Barbie's villain, not for a second, her nonconformist look and attitude says everything about Barbie at its most delightful. Sporting cropped hair, a scribbled-on face and legs akimbo, she's brought to life by Saturday Night Live great Kate McKinnon having a blast, and explained as the outcome of a kid somewhere playing too eagerly. Meet Gerwig's spirit animal; when she lets Weird Barbie's vibe rain down like a shower of glitter, covering everything and everyone in sight, the always-intelligent, amusing and dazzling Barbie is at its brightest and most brilliant.
This film has much to do, as a Mattel- produced affair that also skewers the brand, and both dotes on and parodies all things Barbie, must. The more askew it gets and revels in it, the better. Indeed, in a movie that not only overflows with a feminist perspective, but pokes glorious fun at the patriarchy — plus 90s male-fronted rock, car and horse obsessions, and men competing and one-upping each other (side note: do Kens have genitalless bulge-measuring contests?) — it throws in a glaring clash that couldn't serve the picture better. Barbies can be anything, be it President (Issa Rae, Insecure), a doctor (Hari Nef, Meet Cute), a diplomat (Nicola Coughlan, Bridgerton), a Nobel Prize-winning physicist (Emma Mackey, Emily), an author (Alexandra Schipp, tick, tick... BOOM!), a Supreme Court justice (Ana Cruz Kayne, Jerry and Marge Go Large), a journalist (Ritu Arya, Polite Society), a lawyer (Sharon Rooney, Jerk) and a mermaid (Dua Lipa, making her movie debut). They can also nearly have the film stolen from them by a Zoolander-esque himbo Ryan Gosling (The Gray Man) at his absolute funniest as Stereotypical Barbie's yearning Ken.
Before Ken's stunning late-film, go-for-broke, 50s-musical-adoring song-and-dance number that deserves all of the awards, including for Gosling putting his crooning to use again post-La La Land and loving it, Barbie has to derail the Barbies' constant rotation of best days ever. Gerwig and her Greenberg, Frances Ha, Mistress America and White Noise helmer Noah Baumbach, who co-writes here, wouldn't have a storyline otherwise. Together and apart, the duo has a stellar pedigree in conveying the disappointments of simply being, a notion they pull back out of the box. For Stereotypical Barbara Millicent Roberts, her idyll shifts when her giant blowout party with all the Barbies, planned choreography and a bespoke song sparks thoughts about death for the first time. Next comes messy hair upon waking, burnt breakfast, a fall from her DreamHouse to her car — rather than floating down like a hand is airlifting her — and suddenly unarched feet that can't handle high heels.
Only Weird Barbie has an inkling of what's going on, guiding Stereotypical Barbie to the real world to seek out whoever's playing with her, discover why they're less than blissful and fix that human to fix herself. Los Angeles, here she comes — to rollerblade in neon as everyone has known since 2022, and with Ken tagging along. Gosling's Ken is only one Ken, of course. Simu Liu (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Secret Invasion), Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education) and Scott Evans (Grace and Frankie): they're other Kens. John Cena (Fast X) is a Ken mermaid. Michael Cera (Black Mirror) is Alan, and he's unique. In Barbie Land, everyone who isn't Barbie — even Midge (Emerald Fennell, The Crown) — sits in the Barbies' shadow. When, as they meet Mattel employee Gloria (America Ferrera, Superstore), her teen daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt, 65) and the company's CEO (Will Ferrell, Spirited), Barbie and Ken learn that reality doesn't mirror that setup, their glossy polymer bubble bursts.
Weathering a surreal existential crisis or not, and even being the butt of one of narrator Helen Mirren's (Shazam! Fury of the Gods) many wry jokes by name, Robbie is sparkling, warm and sincere. There's nothing PVC about her performance, which is equally light and heartfelt — and still gives Gosling all the room that he can thrust his spray-tanned chest into to deliver a hilarious physical comedy masterclass (and, although Robbie led Babylon, sometimes sashay like he's in Hollywood's Golden Age). Robbie, and Gosling also, keep shimmering when the film feels a touch careful, or falls slightly and briefly flatter. They're the sublime antidote when Barbie stresses that it's lampooning, rather than just doing it. And, though playing characters with painted-on fridge contents (her) and "just beach" as a job (him), they're what makes the movie feel wonderfully real and earnest even when — especially when — it's at its goofiest and silliest.
Gerwig has directed a lively, zany, oh-so witty and pretty Barbie flick that's perfectly cast, a costuming showcase and, in Barbie Land, a production-design dream. With Baumbach, she's penned a knowing, mile-a-minute, meta-but-meaningful film that's a tribute and a takedown — happy celebrating Barbie's aspirational role and place in history since 1959, while calling out corporatised girl power, mainstream beauty standards, the ridiculous expectations placed upon women (basically dropping a sequel to Gone Girl's "cool girl" speech, in fact) and capitalism's intellectual property-hungry quest for control. Sometimes, the fingers that are moving Barbie's pieces are a touch too evident, pushing hard instead of just playing hard. Sometimes, they're a tad timid. Thankfully, these are minor issues, like choosing who Barbie should be when the possibilities are endless. This film's charms aren't quite infinite, but they're as ever-present as pink, pink and more pink in an ambitious, inventive and joyously entertaining movie that gave the world a fuchsia paint shortage.
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