This Barbie has it all: eye-popping visuals, a star-studded cast, strange and committed performances, and a screenplay loaded with hefty, existential ideas. Set between a Barbie dream-realm where women run everything, and the real world—where misogyny runs rampant—Barbie seeks to lambast male-dominated society. However, in the process, it creates a near-perfect distillation of white feminism, where the gender binary defines every interaction, but the idea of race and other factors become totally invisible in its purview of social hierarchy...But is it fun? Will kids enjoy it? Can you turn your brain off and have a good time? Those questions have oddly complicated answers.
Barbie is directed by Greta Gerwig, whose previous solo directorial efforts, Lady Bird and Little Women, are modern classics. Handing her the keys to a Mattel product (along with co-screenwriter and romantic partner Noah Baumbach, the director of Marriage Story) yields an attempt at subverting the film’s very existence as corporate advertising (the plan is for it to kick off an entire cinematic universe). There are genuine, Gerwig-esque undercurrents at every turn, between mother-daughter stories, and tales of women coming of age and self-actualizing in wonderful ways. However, these ideas often struggle to emerge from behind frenetic pacing and haphazard structure—not to mention, sincere attempts to unearth struggles with insecurity and self-image, which end up buried beneath mounting irony that, while intentional, tries to draw attention to the movie’s flaws without doing much about them.
What’s especially frustrating is that for every element that doesn’t work, there’s something that does. The first 20 minutes or so are a pitch-perfect conceptual introduction, in which we meet Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie”—the original white, skinny, swimsuit wearing Barbie from the 1950s—as she goes about her day, presented with toy-logic in the form of magical realism. Nobody walks to their car in the bright pink Barbieland; they simply float into the front seat, the way they would if they were being puppeteered or played with by a child. Animated VFX highlight most movements, while the various Barbies—played by a diverse cast of actresses (though all with American accents; its conception of diversity only goes so far)—eat, drink, and even shower in their various ornate playhouses, but they pantomime the specifics rather than consuming real food, or touching real water. It’s a delightful depiction of childlike imagination, sprinkled with these Barbies’ self-effacing belief that their very existence has solved all problems of sexism in the real world through representation alone; there’s President Barbie, played by Black actress Issa Rae, Doctor Barbie played by transgender actress Hari Nef, and so on.
And then, there are the Kens. The sweet, oblivious Kens, whose only role is to be in love with their respective Barbies. They’re played by the likes of Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, Simu Liu, and of course, Ryan Gosling, who throws himself into the role with such astonishing sincerity that he creates a performance for the ages. However, Robbie’s Barbie is too innocent, and perhaps too naïve, to pick up on his advances, and she isn’t interested anyway. Not when her daily routine (narrated by the great Helen Mirren, and by a litany of self-aware songs) begins to feel repetitive, weighing on her until she stops a choreographed Barbie dance party dead in its tracks by mentioning her looming thoughts of death.
In the process, the film becomes existentially intriguing with a bang, leading Barbie (and Gosling’s Ken, who secretly tags along) on a road trip to the real world to find the girl who plays with her, to see if her problems may be influencing Barbie. It’s here that the film sets up all its themes with aplomb, hinting at a tale of adolescence unfolding somewhere in the distance, waiting to be discovered. Barbie has fleeting visions of a teenage girl who now refuses to play with her, and she begins to have body-image issues of her own, fearing flat feet and even cellulite, as if in extension of this mysterious child’s evolving mood.
The rest of the story involves Barbie discovering and being horrified by real-world patriarchy in L.A., and Ken being devilishly delighted by it, as the duo tracks down a mother and daughter who might hold the answers to Barbie’s existential crisis. The actual company Mattel also gets involved, with a cavalcade of cartoonish male executives (led by Will Ferrell) trying to get Barbie back to where she belongs, though it’s quickly forgotten. Meanwhile Ken sneakily and misguidedly brings sexism back to Barbieland like some exotic fruit. It all sounds wonderful in theory, and the film is consistently hilarious whenever Gosling is on screen (his commitment to himbo-istic melodrama is unparalleled in all of cinema). But the more Barbie attempts to juggle its high-minded, meta-textual ideas, the more it takes the easiest and most narratively convenient routes, robbing itself of its own dramatic and even comedic potential at various turns.
The seams begin to show early on, when Barbie seeks the advice of “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), an outcast toy that was played with “too hard” and is now disfigured, about how to deal with her sudden bouts of insecurity and death anxiety. There are jokes galore, but they quickly begin to feel played on fast-forward; the film seldom slows down to let any one of them land unless Gosling is on screen, cutting quickly and robotically to each subsequent shot with reckless abandon (at times, even pulling out to wider shots that reduce any comedic or dramatic emphasis). The broad strokes of the movie’s cinematic language are easy to comprehend: Barbieland is a bright, eye-popping utopia, while the real world has a more muted palette (it’s hard to go wrong with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto on your team). However, its structural specifics often deny it the depth for which it seems to be aiming.
The aforementioned mother-daughter duo (played by America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt) initially emerges as a key emotional component of the film—à la Gerwig’s own Lady Bird—with Barbie’s insecurities and depressive episodes playing like a dramatic externalization of their personal and interpersonal problems. However, this interplay is very quickly shoved aside in favor of a fetch-quest where their relationship issues appear to be resolved off-screen. It’s as if a Gerwig movie had been swallowed whole by something far less effective: a film that fits its pieces together on a mechanical assembly line, creating plastic that never fully comes to life, but instead lampshades its own themes, its casting, and its narrative decisions ad nauseam in lieu of embracing them.
The movie’s jokes and visual cues often borrow from cinematic classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix; these are usually jokes, but the latter makes for an apt comparison, given its own meta-textual sequel a few years ago. The Matrix Resurrections name drops parent studio Warner Bros. several times in its attempt to break the fourth wall, with writer-director Lana Wachowski essentially commenting on how much choice she really had in making the sequel to begin with. Barbie’s invocations of Mattel feel similar, with shade thrown in the direction of corporate greed and the sale and packaging of female empowerment as a marketable product, but this is a trap the film itself seldom manages to escape. Where it initially contains nuance, whether in its mother-daughter story or in its tale of a plastic woman confronting her humanity, it soon trades these in for the broadest possible statements (quite literally, in the form of monologues delivered straight to camera) about women in the workplace and societal expectations. There’s a plot-centric reason concocted for this delivery, and viewers whose gendered experiences align with the film’s POV may find value and acknowledgement in the process. However, these notions as they appear in the film are just as suited for a Twitter thread when delivered in this fashion, rather than a movie about discovering and acknowledging inner life and complexity. Rarely are these ideas given dramatic embodiment, through action and the likes. Where young children might be taken in by the bright colors and broad jokes of the initial half, they’re likely to be lost by the time this extended portion of the movie rolls around, which feels less entertaining and more academic.
To add to this, the film’s conception of the real world (and the way its issues infect the candy-colored Barbie realm) are limited to the flattest and whitest possible conception of gender discrimination, devoid of any context other than pure optics.
These monologues soon become the movie’s bread and butter, resulting in a form of feminine empowerment that feels oddly similar to the one it was satirizing in the first place, with its vision of a Barbie utopia that seems oblivious to the real world. To add to this, the film’s conception of the real world (and the way its issues infect the candy-colored Barbie realm) are limited to the flattest and whitest possible conception of gender discrimination, devoid of any context other than pure optics. This leaves even its racially diverse cast feeling like window dressing, divorcing womanhood from Black womanhood, Asian womanhood, Latina womanhood, and so on. It’s the kind of simplification that often equates “womanhood” with “white womanhood” and sees no issues with this approach. Strangely, the film does make one fleeting, self-aware joke about this, but it doesn’t add any intellectual or dramatic value to what’s on screen (and what’s on screen feels afraid to acknowledge the culpability of white women in modern corporate inequity, laying it all at the feet of men regardless of their ethnicity). In the process, the film’s non-stop pillorying of patriarchy often comes at the cost of feminine complexity, rendering it less Lady Bird, which acknowledges a more diverse and complex world outside the characters’ peripheries, and more A Little Late With Lilly Singh in its repetition of one-note jokes. It’s a film that wants to be taken seriously for what lies beneath its shiny exterior, but seldom backs it up with the necessary intellectual, social or political rigor. Turn your brain off, and all that remains is the white noise left over from online discourse.
This also results, ironically, in Gosling and the other Kens being the film’s dramatic and comedic highlights, since their adoption of real-world misogyny is, in fact, depicted as fully formed, stemming from romantic and other masculine insecurities. Liu, for instance, is much better suited to playing a scumbag than the typical Asian “nice guy” role Hollywood has largely slotted him into. Meanwhile, Gosling shoots for the moon with his sincere and hilariously pained depiction of a man for whom the aesthetic of horses, trucks and “brewskis” are the perfect shield for the raw emotions he barely conceals (and often reveals through song).
Unfortunately, Barbie ends up similarly applying an aesthetics-as-politics approach to its various Barbies too, often robbing them of the three-dimensional substance it grants its Kens. Robbie is an exception, with her I, Tonya-esque put-upon smiles that betray a sense of anguish, but even her most vulnerable moments end up undercut by self-aware punchlines from Mirren’s narrator. At one point, she’s even positioned as an artist in search of some form of expression she can’t quite reach; it’s a frustration that never fully comes to fruition, and it can’t help but read like a self-assessment on the filmmakers’ part. This is Gerwig’s first production after becoming a mother, and there’s a distinctly maternal story at its center at first, which plays like an expansion of the primarily daughter-centric perspectives in her prior films. But given how quickly its mother-daughter story is shoved into a corner, these fleeting mentions of Barbie’s own desperation to create (rather than to be a creation or commodity) become an unfortunate reflection of Gerwig’s own artistic voice. It feels stifled here, and repackaged as an empowerment product to be sold on shelves, but with the necessary accessories—the truth and nuance of her previous work—sold separately.
Published on July 18, 2023