It’s hard to think of a bigger summer movie this year – indeed, since before the pandemic, perhaps – than Barbie. With Greta Gerwig coming off the critically and commercially beloved Lady Bird and Little Women, an all-star cast, and one of the smartest advertising campaigns in recent memory, it’s hard to think of a film this talked about (for better or for worse).
The question, since its inception, has been “Can this movie live up to the hype? How can you make the world’s most iconic, yet simplistic toy into an intriguing, entertaining, and yes, thought provoking movie?” The answer is something of a Trojan Horse, and perhaps all the better for it. Gerwig has not so much made a Barbie movie as made a movie about the idea of Barbie, and all that that entails. It’s big, audacious, messy, and every bit as entertaining as one could hope.
Barbie (Margot Robbie) is the stereotypical version of the iconic doll. She lives in Barbieland, a utopia that exists within the confines of children’s imaginations in the real world when they play with the dolls. Her days include interacting with all the other world-renowned Barbies (one’s a President, one’s a physicist, there’s an all-woman Supreme Court, and they’re all played by a veritable who’s who of big name actresses), lounging at the beach, and a dance party every night, with the occasional interaction with a group of Kens that exist solely to serve the Barbies – including Stereotypical Ken (Ryan Gosling), who wants nothing more than to win the love of his beloved.
However, things take a turn for Barbie once she begins having strange thoughts about death and anxiety – her food gets burned, she can’t float off her roof, and what’s worse, her iconically arched feet go flat. After meeting with the wise Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), she realizes that the little girl playing with her in the real world must be experiencing a deep and inexplicable sadness. Therefore, Barbie must traverse to the real world in order to fix the predicament.
Followed by Ken, Barbie soon finds herself in a real world she can’t understand: men ogle her on the street and make suggestive remarks, there’s an overwhelming sense of anxiety, and she’s constantly chased by the frazzled CEO of her parent company, Mattel (Will Ferrell). Aided by a Mattel employee and her daughter (America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt), Barbie must find a way to solve her ailments – and soon, for Ken has discovered the joys of the patriarchy (and horses) and set out to remake Barbieland as Kenland.
Barbie is less about the doll herself as it is about the questions that young women begin to struggle with right around the time they age out of their childhood playthings. It’s about the messiness of adulthood, of the real world, and of being a woman in general. Barbie’s struggles become those of every woman: am I good enough? Why do I feel anxious all the time? Am I going to be good at my job/in my relationships/as a mother? And am I more than just my looks – especially at the appearance of (gasp!) cellulite. What do these questions mean when you live in a world that doesn’t allow for imperfection. After all, “Barbie doesn’t get embarrassed!” Robbie’s doll is told.
It makes sense that Barbie be the vessel for Gerwig’s explorations, because the doll herself is a messy icon. She inspires girls to follow their dreams, but is also a caricature of the “perfect woman” to be ogled. It’s not too far a stretch of the imagination that the film’s depiction of the Mattel board, determined to create empowering and strong dolls to inspire young girls, is entirely made up of men.
It’s trite, perhaps even a tad gauche, to refer to movies nowadays as “films about feminism,” because the term seems solely chosen to incite a culture war. But what’s brilliant here is that Gerwig has made a film explicitly about how messy feminism is, and why it’s an ever-evolving philosophy and ethos. It’s not always as clean a metaphor as, say, Gerwig’s perfect monologue on the same subject in Little Women (although Ferrera takes a swing here with a similar monologue), but it still works, and works well.
However, while the film’s themes and screenplay may become a little too broad for the just-under two-hour movie, the filmmaking and the humor more than compensate. More so than even her first two ventures (which were mostly feats of writing), Barbie is a testament to the towering filmmaker that Gerwig has become. The film feels every bit of its fantastical whimsy, utilizing evocations of artists as varied as Tati, Demy, Monty Python, Gene Kelly, and Spielberg while never losing her signature touch.
Every joke lands, from the opening 2001 parody to the way each Barbie and Ken evokes the joy of playing with Barbie dolls to a bit involving Depression that is guffaw-inducing. And when aided by the ethereal work by costume designer Jacqueline Durran and set designers Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, this is simply one of the best-looking comedies in…I don’t want to say ever, so let’s just say “years.”
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the soundtrack, which is both impeccable in its own right and demonstrates Gerwig’s unabashed ability to get as silly as necessary. Each and every original song stands out – hell, they often interact with the plot, shattering the fourth wall. But beyond Lizzo’s energetic opening jam, Dua Lipa’s perfect disco party anthem, and Billie Eilish’s hypnotic emotional ballad, the best musical moments come as a direct part of the plot.
There’s a brief “Spice Up Your Life” needle drop that feels tailor-made for this critic in particular. Gosling’s big “I’m Just Ken” (a full-blown musical number) is as joyous as one could hope. But perhaps the best joke in the film, and best musical number, is a use of Matchbox Twenty late in the film that is simply a work of genius. Gerwig commanded this ship from the top down, and it can be felt in each and every scene.
It’s hard to single any particular actor out of the ensemble, because every actor truly understands the assignment. Robbie doesn’t so much as show off her range as an actor than show a different side of herself. Her emotional moments feel far less impressive than the feats of physical comedy her career has not required from her to date. It’s a far sillier performance than even her iconic work as Harley Quinn, and while I’d hesitate to call it her best work, it is certainly captivating work in its own right.
Gosling, meanwhile, may be an example of perfect casting. It feels wrong to overpraise Ken in a movie about Barbie herself, but my God, does Gosling commit to the bit. Funny Gosling has always been the best Gosling, and it is so clear here, with the actor perfectly in sync with the role of a dopey Ken seduced by the promise of power and love, slowly transformed from a himbo to a dude bro. Every movement, every facial expression, and every line delivery is near perfection, with Gosling fully immersed into the role and its subtleties. I mean, the look on his face when he walks through Century City and discovers toxic masculinity? Somebody get this man his Oscar.
As I mentioned before, every actor of the ensemble wholly on board with the film’s unique vision, so I just want to shout out some of the highlights. Arianna Greenblatt shines as Sasha, the mean girl tween daughter of Gloria reluctantly drawn into the adventure. Issa Rae is pretty incredible as President Barbie, while Kate McKinnon and Hari Nef give perhaps the funniest performances as other Barbies out of a wide ensemble. Rob Brydon has a cameo I won’t spoil as a very specific type of Ken. And then, of course, there’s Michael Cera as Allan, a role on par with his performance in This Is The End in terms of sheer brilliance. Live Love Allan, folks.
Barbie is, at the very least, the most fascinating big-budget comedy to come out of a major studio in…probably twenty years? Maybe more? It’s not perfect, but it’s consistently funny, perfectly executed, and delivers on a level of fantasy and hilarity unlike anything in recent memory. It’s arguably the weakest of Gerwig’s three films to date, but it’s by far her most accessible. And it’s hard to complain when a filmmaker makes something this big and fun. Barbie is an iconic and timeless product that evokes the joys of childhood. Gerwig’s film taps into that same spirit, and we’re all the better for it.
Barbie is now playing in theaters nationwide