Countless moments in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie had me thinking, “I can’t believe this is a real movie.” From a hilarious 2001-style opening in which little girls smash their old dolls, to Margot Robbie drinking imaginary milk, to a platinum-haired Ryan Gosling squealing with glee as he rides down a pink slide, this gag-a-second utopia takes on a surreality that even extends beyond what’s on the screen. Maybe that’s why Barbie has caught on as a fully-fledged phenomenon. (Other than Warner Bros.’s ingenious and ever-present marketing and its face-off with Oppenheimer, of course.) It seems designed to be memed into oblivion, yet approaches this aim with the sincerity to actually pull it off without seeming fake or desperate.
Naturally, there’s also Greta Gerwig’s genius, which helps Barbie toe the line between gut-bustlingly funny and overwhelmingly sincere. It has its cake and eats it too, and somehow, that doesn’t produce an avalanche of eye-rolls.
Just as crucial, for all the sanitized, committee-driven, and just bland corporate products turned into movies, Barbie actually has a personal touch. Following the very funny 2001 parody, the film opens on Barbieland, showing stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) and the other Barbies about their morning routines in their dreamhouses. (Every “Hi Barbie!” is very, very funny.) Ken (Ryan Gosling) waits in the wings for Barbie to acknowledge him. As narrator Helen Mirren says, Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a good day when Barbie looks at him. I’m sure Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach had a blast coming up with the various gags for this world. The aforementioned imaginary drinking of milk, an imaginary doctor’s visit, or merely the act of Barbie floating from the top of her dreamhouse to her car below; all of the simulations of someone playing with these dolls really work. Production designer Sarah Greenwood’s work in building this tactile, candy-coated world is nothing short of fantastic too.
One could say that playing with dolls is its own artistic endeavor for children, allowing their creative side to run wild, to imagine any world they want, and bend its logic to their whims. Using that concept as Barbie’s conceit is really ingenious. Instead of the IP informing Gerwig how she should tell her story, it’s the exact opposite. The IP can be anything we want it to be. Taking that a step further, Barbie essentially calls for radical reinterpretations of existing properties.
These shenanigans lead to Barbie hosting an epic dance party at her house, where she eventually blurts out that she’s been thinking about death. Sensing something is horribly wrong, Barbie heads to see Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a version of Barbie that someone played with a little too hard who sports a misshaped haircut and outfit with crayon all over her face. There, Weird Barbie tells Barbie that she must go to the real world to look for her owner to solve why she’s feeling so existential. This takes her to modern-day L.A. via a whimsical journey full of Barbie convertibles, rocket ships, and The Indigo Girls. In yet another effort to court Barbie, Ken stows away in her convertible and travels with her.
While looking for her owner, Barbie learns that the real world is very different than she imagined. She’s immediately cat catcalled and harassed, while Ken goes to the library and learns about the wonders of the patriarchy. She stumbles upon her owner Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who labels Barbie a “fascist.” Barbie eventually finds herself at Mattel headquarters and meets the CEO (Will Ferrell), who wants to put her in a box to stop her from wreaking havoc in the real world. While escaping, Barbie gets some help from Sasha and her mom Gloria (America Ferrera). The trio heads back to Barbieland, where they see that Ken has taught the other Kens how awesome the patriarchy is, and turned Barbieland into a douchey, himbo oasis.
Lining out Barbie‘s synopsis is enough to have Tucker Carlson enthusiasts trembling at their keyboards (a long-winded, earnest speech from America Ferrara is sure to be clipped out and criticized by those same people) but as seen in both Lady Bird and Little Women, Gerwig’s directing touch is so light and charming, that those moments feel earned, even rousing.
It also helps that Barbie is a big ol’ studio comedy at its core. I believe Margot Robbie doesn’t get nearly the credit she deserves. Her antic, cartoonish expressions she’s cultivated in various pop entertainments are a perfect match for the material. Seeing Will Ferrell on top of his game again is an excellent reminder of how the studio system hasn’t nurtured comedic talents in the last decade. The same goes for Gosling too. Although he’s a widely successful, multi-faceted actor, he’s a criminally underrated and underused comedic talent. He nearly steals every scene he’s in as Ken.
As Barbie bounces from joke to joke, it does seem to be in a constant battle with itself as it grapples with its own existence. Mattel is dead set on creating more movies out of its properties, and Barbie making a joke out of the company throughout is a really funny act of rebellion. Where a lot of movies would make the corporate subplot the main thrust of the plot, Barbie humorously peters it out over time, to the point where it hardly factors into the film’s final act. Ferrell’s bumbling CEO character and his suits are always 10 steps behind, but eager to chime in when they smell possible profits. All of this is really funny, but Barbie remains a corporate product, one that will make its corporation a lot of money. Gerwig knows this too and attempts to blunt a lot of criticisms that would naturally come with making a Barbie movie. Many of these attempts come across as self-conscious rather than biting, wrestling away screen time from more jokes. Others don’t really have any conclusions at all.
But through it all, Barbie still manages to feel like a Greta Gerwig movie. Who would’ve thought we’d get a Barbie movie that pulls from Gene Kelly and Jacques Demy classics? It’s definitely scruffier both thematically and structurally than Gerwig’s other works, yet it still manages to carry the same themes of identity and womanhood. It’s nothing short of a small miracle that it works at all.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Barbie? Comment down below!
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