‘Barbie’ Is About as Good as a Barbie Movie Could Ever Be
Barbie, the hotly anticipated film opening nationwide on July 21, has a lot on its mind. How could it not, when its creators—director Greta Gerwig co-wrote the film with her partner, Noah Baumbach—have been handed such a tricky task? The film, about the preeminent fashion doll, has to serve the interests of its masters, in this case the Mattel corporation, while also cheating out to the audience to convince them that what they are watching is not just some two-hour ad. The film must be extra conscious of what Barbie is—critical of it, even—while also celebrating one of the most famous toys ever made. What choice did Gerwig have, then, but to go weird?
That’s exactly what she does with Barbie, which is part satire, part earnest fable, and part big-minded meditation on the nature of existence. Those components don’t a cohesive film make—Barbie’s many fashions and accessories often clash—but at least Gerwig has made something worth thinking and talking about. Barbie does not give off the cold gleam of mere board-approved product, even if that is, at root, still what it is.
Margot Robbie plays Stereotypical Barbie, essentially just the blonde, basic model. She lives in Barbie Land surrounded by other Barbies defined by a single attribute: there’s President Barbie (Issa Rae), Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), and so on. They live happy days in the company of the Kens, affable dopes cognizant of their second-tier status but not terribly fussed about it. Our main Barbie’s Ken, a beach-bound version of the doll, is played by Ryan Gosling, who takes up a lot of space considering that this is a Barbie movie, not a Ken one.
In the film’s confused, who-really-cares-about-logic reality, the Barbies each represent dolls that are being played with in the real world, but they themselves can also cross into our realm in their own physical form. This fact is readily accepted by everyone who hears it—be they doll or human. Gerwig does not want us dwelling on particulars, not when there is so much thematic ambition to be addressed.
Something begins troubling Robbie’s Barbie. She has a dawning fear of death; her feet have fallen from high-heel ready tip-toe. Most alarming, to her anyway, is the cellulite that has developed on her thighs. In search of some sort of remedy, Barbie leaves her comfortable home to find the little girl currently playing with her (again, it’s confusing) in the hopes of cheering her up, thus restoring Barbie’s perfect existence. Ken stows away in the Barbie convertible, and soon both he and his sorta girlfriend are learning terrible things about the world, an Adam and Eve emerging from the garden to find a wilderness riven with sin.
Barbie comes to realize that she’s got a complicated profile among the humans. She and her kin have not inspired a utopia in which women do amazing things without barrier or opposition, the way the Barbies have long assumed. Instead the dolls have been largely dismissed as sexist relics, talismans of impossible ideals that have no place in modern culture—which, as Barbie also quickly grasps, is not terribly good to women anyway. Her companion, meanwhile, discovers patriarchy, a wondrous system that prizes Kens—I mean, men—above all else. He can’t wait to tell all his fellow betas about it.
So, yes: Ken gets red-pilled while Barbie embarks on a complicated journey of self, in the process contending with all the expectations and limitations placed on women by the system Ken so naively understands. Barbie’s feminist philosophy—decidedly of the pop variety but not shallow, exactly—carries the film far afield of the brand apologia I had feared. Gerwig mostly just shrugs her shoulders at the toy in question and instead turns her gaze toward more intangible questions of life. She’s so eager to tackle big things that her film goes bouncing every which way, veering wildly between tones. There’s corny stuff, subversive stuff, political stuff. There’s a big musical number. A dreamy poignancy dominates the end of the film, in which Barbie, in some senses, meets God.
From all that jumble, Barbie extracts only general conclusions. The film features a long, impassioned monologue delivered by America Ferrara (who plays a Mattel employee with a surly, anti-Barbie tween daughter) that lays out the many ways in which women are forever in conflict with themselves and within their societies. It’s righteous, bold-faced point making, but Barbie is not interested in becoming a polemic. Gerwig simply urges her characters, and her audience, toward accepting that the world is tricky and broken but also beautiful, and that the best way to be in it is by simply being yourself, whoever that may be. Barbie pushes its hero, and Ken, into that exploration and then leaves them to it, dropping all the clashes over patriarchy and corporate feminism in favor of a palatable message about individualism.
Which, sure. What was a Barbie movie supposed to do, solve misogyny? Gerwig knows that her movie can really only tickle and mildly provoke; it’s mostly there to be amusing. And it is, albeit more gently than I think was intended. There are a few laugh-out-loud gags in the film, which I won’t spoil or butcher here, but just as many jokes, if not more, clunk around like cheap plastic. The script is so strenuously wacky that it runs the movie ragged pretty quickly.