Writer/director Greta Gerwig has won acclaim for films like Little Women and Lady Bird, both of which received Oscar nominations. So it was a bit of surprise that her latest feature — which she co-wrote with her parter Noah Baumbach — is a fantasy film about America’s most popular doll.
Starring Margot Robbie as the titular figure and Ryan Gosling as her long-time boyfriend Ken, Barbie looks absolutely ridiculous, with its bright and garish color scheme. (So much pink was used by the film’s production, in fact, that it caused an international paint shortage.)
The trailers certainly highlight the film’s absurdity, as Barbie and Ken travel to the “real” world, but does the meta-ness work? Or is it too pretentious for a film that’s about a childhood toy? Read on to see what critics are saying about Barbie (and brace yourself for a lot of Ken puns).
Working again with her co-writer, Noah Baumbach (Mistress America, Frances Ha), Gerwig has conceived Barbie as a bubble-gum emulsion of silliness and sophistication, a picture that both promotes and deconstructs its own brand. It doesn’t just mean to renew the endless “Barbie: good or bad?” debate. It wants to enact that debate, to vigorously argue both positions for the better part of two fast-moving, furiously multitasking hours.
Check out the brain on Barbie! Sure, she’s just a doll, but that doesn’t mean she has to be an airhead. Therein lies Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig’s inspired, 21st-century solution to bringing one of America’s most iconic playthings to life on the big screen. Combine that with the casting of Margot Robbie in the title role, and Barbie is already starting out on the right, perfectly arched foot. So what if this high-concept comedy falls a bit flat in the final stretch?
It’s a tall order for Gerwig and company to deliver a feature that’s reverent and revelatory while speaking directly to the pressures of living up to an impossible feminine ideal. And yet they did it with crafty aplomb. Though a tad overstuffed with too many good ideas, pulling from loads of subtly identifiable cinematic references (everything from Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 drama A Matter of Life and Death to the more recent The Truman Show), Barbie ultimately leaves us entertained, emotionally exhausted, and ready to play again soon.
While Barbie is wildly ambitious in an exciting way, it’s also frustratingly uneven at times. After coming on strong with wave after wave of zippy hilarity, the film drags in the middle as it presents its more serious themes. It’s impossible not to admire how Gerwig is taking a big swing with heady notions during the mindless blockbuster season, but she offers so many that the movie sometimes stops in its propulsive tracks to explain itself to us — and then explain those points again and again. The breezy, satirical edge she established off the top was actually a more effective method of conveying her ideas about the perils of toxic masculinity and entitlement and the power of female confidence and collaboration.
Barbie is joyous from minute to minute to minute. But it’s where the film ends up that really cements the near-miraculousness of Gerwig’s achievement. Very late in the movie, a conversation is had that neatly sums up one of the great illusions of capitalism — that creations exist independently from those that created them. It’s why films and television shows get turned into “content”, and why writers and actors end up exploited and demeaned. Barbie, in its own sly, silly way, gets to the very heart of why these current strikes are so necessary.
Barbie is a magic trick, a stellar example of a filmmaker taking a well-established bit of corporate IP and using it to deliver a message loudly and clearly. That Greta Gerwig’s third solo film as director also manages to be a giddy, silly, and hilarious time is essential to its power, and the challenge of this review is thus trying to explore how the magic trick works, while still preserving the flat-out awe I have at what it achieves.
The film’s comedic yet incisive commentary on toxic masculinity is its strongest throughline, as it infects Gosling’s Ken, and eventually all of the rest of Barbieland’s Kens and Barbies. Whenever the movie is joking about the patriarchy and the very idea of the men’s rights movement, it sings. It also literally sings, with frequent in-jokey background songs, and a sequence where all the Kens bore their respective Barbie girlfriends to tears by whipping out acoustic guitars to sing at her rather than to her.
Watching the movie, you can often feel how Mattel and Gerwig’s plans for Barbie weren’t necessarily in sync and how those differences led to compromises being made. Thankfully, that doesn’t keep the movie from being fun. But it does make it rather hard to get lost in the fantasy of it all — especially once Barbie starts going meta to poke fun at the studios behind it in a way that seems to be becoming more common.
As Sondheim brought childhood fables into contact with the frightening but fortifying forces of adult consequences, so Gerwig transposes the legendary figures of her own youth — albeit capitalistic totems — into a Real World where they must confront and combat the insidious effects of gender division. While it’s possible to examine Barbie with the seriousness of a Sunday School class or a Women’s and Gender Studies seminar, the film never loses its footing in the fizzy fun of a rip-roaring summer blockbuster. She leads with humor, then reveals the potent combination of head and heart powering the enterprise.
Gerwig’s filmmaking enriches our world, earnest and joyous and thoughtful. Even under the guise of a piece of massive IP, she maintains that spirit where others have failed. While some will inevitably miss the intimacy of her past work, Barbie proves Gerwig’s strengths as an artist are as applicable to big-budget, grand-scale filmmaking as they are the small ambitions of her mumblecore years and past two solo efforts… It’s a shame that Gerwig, and so many other talented filmmakers, are rarely given the resources to produce art with such ambition, and I highly doubt studios will learn the right lessons from a film like Barbie, should it meet or exceed its lofty box office expectations (namely, they will assume that it’s the IP audiences love, rather than the ambitious, individual storytelling).
There’s a streak of defensiveness to Barbie, as though it’s trying to anticipate and acknowledge any critiques lodged against it before they’re made, which renders it emotionally inert despite the efforts at wackiness. To be a film fan these days is to be aware that franchises and cinematic universes and remakes and other adaptations of old IP have become black holes that swallow artists, leaving you to desperately hope they might emerge with the rare project that, even though it comes from constrictive confines, still feels like it was made by a person. Barbie definitely was. But the trouble with trying to sneak subversive ideas into a project so inherently compromised is that, rather than get away with something, you might just create a new way for a brand to sell itself.
It’s true that Barbie does many of the things we’ve been promised: there is much mocking and loving of Barbie, and plenty of skewering of the suits. But none of those things make it subversive. Instead, it’s a movie that’s enormously pleased with itself, one that has cut a big slice of perfectly molded plastic cake and eaten it — or pretend-eaten it — too. The things that are good about Barbie — Robbie’s buoyant, charming performance and Ryan Gosling’s go-for-broke turn as perennial boyfriend Ken, as well as the gorgeous, inventive production design — end up being steamrollered by all the things this movie is trying so hard to be. Its playfulness is the arch kind. Barbie never lets us forget how clever it’s being, every exhausting minute.
Barbie arrives in theaters on July 21, 2023. Watch the trailer below.