A film review by Craig J. Koban August 5, 2023

BARBIE  jjj
 

2023, PG-13, 114 mins

Margot Robbie as Barbie  /  Ryan Gosling as Ken  /  America Ferrera as Gloria  /  Will Ferrell as Mattel CEO  /  Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie  /  Ariana Greenblatt as Sasha  /  Issa Rae as President Barbie  /  Rhea Perlman as Ruth Handler  /  Hari Nef as Doctor Barbie  /  Emma Mackey as Physicist Barbie  /  Alexandra Shipp as Writer Barbie  /  Michael Cera as Allan  /  Helen Mirren as Narrator  /  Simu Liu as Ken  /  Dua Lipa as Mermaid Barbie  /  John Cena as Kenmaid  /  Kingsley Ben-Adir as Ken  /  Scott Evans as Ken  /  Jamie Demetriou as Mattel Executive

Directed by Greta Gerwig  /  Written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach

BARBIE is a real cinematic curveball that's thrown at audiences.  

Going into it, I was fully expecting yet another cynical-minded attempt of brand extension to the silver screen to peddle toys to the masses.  And the Barbie line from Mattel is, no doubt about it, an iconic fashion doll and toy empire unlike just about any other that emerged in the 20th Century, meaning that it would only be a matter of time before someone attempted a live action film iteration of it.  

What's ultimately astounding about director Greta Gerwig's BABRIE is the manner it defies nearly all expectations.  It pays reverence to the Ruth Handler created dolls, yes, but the film isn't myopically focused on aggressively selling merchandise to the masses.  Like THE LEGO MOVIE before it, BARBIE creates a meticulously realized and detailed world out of this toy, but it also manages to be an incredibly sly, subversive, and self-deprecating satire about consumerism, corporate gluttony, gender norms, and the doll's positive (and negative) influence on social culture.   

Gerwig's film is equal parts intelligent, thoughtful, and hilarious...and was the most fun I've had in a cinema in an awfully long time.

She may seem like the least likely candidate to helm a blockbuster like this, considering her indie actress background and her small scale and grounded pictures behind the camera like LITTLE WOMEN and LADY BIRD.  Both her and husband Noah Baumbach worked together on BARBIE's screenplay (and reportedly with complete creative autonomy from Mattel), and it's pretty apparent very early on in the film that they're up to the challenge of making a BARBIE film that's both family friendly (as far as toylines-come-to-life fantasies go) and one that has legitimate things to say (pro and con) about the product's history and how it ties into feminist themes of empowerment and the often shaky power imbalance between men and women in multiple facets of life.  Most notably, Geriwg and Baumbach don't leave the bigwigs at Mattel off of their satiric radars, and the corporation - to be abundantly fair - prove to be awfully good sports in terms of what this film has to say about them and their most prized commodity.  As a result, BARBIE has a pretty astounding amount of raw nerve.

That, and the film is a visual nirvana that lovingly re-creates Barbie's world.  Sarah Greenwood's set design, Jacqueline Durran's costumes, and Rodrigo Preito's cinematography all work in concert together to give the pink-hued universe of Barbieland a stunningly envisioned sheen (the three share eleven Oscar nominations combined, so it's clear that Gerwig surrounded herself with a beyond qualified A-team to bring Barbie's universe to life).  Like the STAR WARS films before it, BARBIE is so endlessly generous and inviting with its fantastical world building: there's literally something occupying every corner of the frame to captivate our attention, which means that multiple viewings will undoubtedly be required to soak it all in.  We don't immediately get whisked to Barbieland, though, as Gerwig opens the film in a shrewd and funny send-up of the famous opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  The introductory scene shows girls pre-Barbie release in 1959 playing with baby dolls that required them to facilitate the role of mothers.  Then - like that extraterrestrial monolith in Kubrick's film - emerges the statuesque and beguiling frame of Barbie (Margot Robbie), who lovingly winks at the wide-eyed girls.  Like cavemen discovering how to use bones as tools and weapons, these girls discover the limitless possibilities that Barbie brings to them and their playtime futures.  It's a superb opener that really helps to cement Gerwig's overall approach to the material at hand.

 

 

But then, of course, we're transported to Barbieland, which is, for all intents and purposes, a peaceful and perfect utopian world...at least for Barbie and all other Barbies.  Everything looks and feels as artificially derived as any of the playsets that kids had back in the day, and Gerwig serves up all of the juicy details right up front.  Each one of Barbie's days is essentially identical: happy and consequence-free.  She wakes up to take a shower (no water comes out of the shower head...because there's no plumbing and liquids in Barbie toy sets), and when she makes breakfast and has her morning milk nothing emerges from the cup (remember...Barbie's world is pure make-believe).  She then defies the laws of gravity and floats down from her second floor and onto the ground outside and proceeds to bellow out an enthusiastic "HELLO!" to every other Barbie...all of whom are also named Barbie and reciprocate the same bubbly care-free energy.  Barbieland is not made up of brainless Stepford Wives-esque drones, though.  There are Barbies of different races and occupations.  Robbie's Barbie, though, is the self-described "stereotypical Barbie" of Barbieland - tall, blonde, white, beautiful, fashion and status-loving, and naively care-free.  She wouldn't have it any other way.   

Barbieland wouldn't be what it is without Ken, and (like the Barbies) this world is littered with dozens upon dozens of Kens, who definitely play second fiddle to the women here and are amusingly subservient to them all.  Whereas all of the Barbies control every facet of existence in Barbieland, the Kens are there to pine for and cater to all of the Barbies' needs.  One of the Kens is hopelessly and impossibly infatuated with Robbie's Barbie (played in a scene-stealing himbo performance of side-splittingly amusing energy by Ryan Gosling), who spends all of his day-to-day energy trying to get Barbie to notice and love him.  He fails miserably.  All he knows how to do is "beach," but even his beaching isn't enough to get Barbie to invite him over for the night to do...whatever dolls without genitalia do (yes, this is addressed head-on).  Everything seems perfect for Barbie and her fellow Barbies...until the former starts to ponder - gasp! - death, which is a serious no-no and buzz kill.  After having a meeting with the exiled Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), Barbie is instructed to travel from her realm and into the real world of modern day Los Angeles to deal with her existentialist funk.  She agrees to go, but discovers that Ken has come uninvited.

It's at this point in BARBIE that things get compelling.  

The neon-colored rollerblading pair catch the eyes - and scorn - of just about every onlooking Los Angelino they come in contact with.  They're simply in way, way over their heads in this fish-out-of-water scenario.  Barbie splits up with Ken and decides to - what else? - visit the Mattel HQ, where she meets its CEO (Will Ferrell) and his board of all male directors, who are shocked at the possibility of having Barbie becoming free-thinking and sad (the approach towards dealing with this corporate entity here is tricky considering that Mattel - in reality - is backing this film, but Gerwig is allowed to be crazily bold in showing how clueless this group of men are in dealing with their property and trying to deduce what young women want in their toys).  Concurrent to this are Ken's misadventures as he slowly learns that (in the real world) there's a male-dominated patriarchy that would immensely benefit the Kens back in Barbieland.  Realizing the mess that Ken has ushered in back in their world, Barbie engages in a race against time battle to go back to Barbieland (with a few human allies, including Gloria, played well by America Ferrera) to stop Ken from making it a male doucebag dominated hellscape where Barbies will become the docile underclass.   

There's so much consciously going on under the surface of BARBIE in the manner that Gerwig and Baumbach approach ideas of personal autonomy and gender/class inequities.  Barbie deals with the thorny idea of mortality and whether or not she has a future in her world...or has a destiny that she actually controls.  Ken, on the other hand, has his own spiritual awakening when he discovers the disturbing world of power-hungry and domineering male archetypes that exist in the real world, which makes him easily - if not awkwardly - lash out over the matriarchy that he and his fellow Kens live under in Barbieland.  When Ken gets back home, both he and all of the Kens become weaponized and radicalized, leaving the Barbies on the anxious defensive.  So much of this smartly ties into how Barbie in our world began with a woman's inspiration and became a runaway smash toyline during a period in the late 50s and early 60s when rigid gender norms of what was expected out of women were evolving.  Barbie dolls inspired young girls in the sense that they could be anyone and be anything in their respective lives.  You could be a scientist...or a doctor...or a lawyer...or a politician...or an astronaut because there were themed Barbies that represented that...and that's a good and powerful thing as an agent of change (even though many actual women during the toy's inception struggled to attain legitimacy in these professions)

Having said that, Gerwig doesn't shy away from transitioning from Barbie's trailblazing legacy over the decades and into some of the line's more dicey controversies, like the fact that the perfectly proportioned dolls gave girls an unhealthily high standard to attain as far as their own bodies go.  The perfection of Barbie's beauty is frankly unattainable for most.  Then there is the notion that men in boardrooms (as shown in the film to a heightened farcical effect) are glamorizing these controversial beauty standards for the sake of a greedy profit motive.  Again, BARBIE could have emerged as a sleazy two-hour toy commercial without much of a brain in its head, but Gerwig wisely understands the need to subvert such expectations.  She pays homage to the toy's obvious importance as an inspirational feminist icon while deconstructing the negative impacts it has had on a generation of girls.  There's a funny, but sobering scene when Barbie - in the real world - confronts a group of sullen teen girls in a high school cafeteria and fully expects them to prop her up to hero worshipping levels.  She's brought down to earth really quickly when one of them goes on a vengeful rant about how Barbies for generations have tainted girls' self worth.  Barbie is left crestfallen because she assumed that she empowered all girls for generations. "She thinks I'm a fascist," she bellows out at one low point.  "I don't control the railways or the flow of commerce!" 

Robbie, physically at least, is pitch perfectly cast.  She literally looks like a Barbie doll that has materialized in human (well...almost human) form.  But much like the screenplay, there's so much more lurking under the facade of this perpetually effervescent character in terms of her growing self-awareness about the multiple worlds she inhabits in the story.   She embodies the character's unwavering optimism and bright-eyed spirit in the early stages while later showing her increased pathos when dealing with many of the damning realities of her existence in both Barbieland and the real world.  Robbie somewhat bridges the gap between being over-the-top and downright sincere here, and it's quite the acting feat.  Also superb is the equally well cast Gosling, who scores some of the film's best laughs at the expense of his character's deer-in-the-headlights dimwittedness when dealing with his stature in his candy-colored world.  He's a six-pack adorned and idiotically macho man-child that can't seem to ever get a break.  When Ken partakes in a late film song and dance number - that taps into the Gosling's own humble beginnings as a Mouseketeer - you really gain a sense of what a perfect marriage of star and character we have here.  He plays Ken with a frailty, neediness, and petty narcissism that's pretty damn infectious.  You want to slap and hug him at the same time.  

The supporting cast built around this dynamic duo are equally inspired.  I especially liked SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS' Simu Liu as his more confident-minded and sarcastic Ken, who's the bane of Gosling's Ken's existence, not to mention Michael Cera as Allan, the male doll from the toyline that seemingly everyone disregards and can't remember is even sharing space with them (there are no multiple Allens in Barbieland...there's just...Allen).  I also liked Ferrera's turn as Barbie's human confidant, who has a deep personal tie with the toy from her own childhood history (she gives a passionately rendered monologue in the later stages of the film that serves as a rallying cry for what it actually means to be a woman in a society that doesn't afford them a fair and equitable shot in most respects).  Then there's Ferrell, who can play hot-headed morons better than anyone and in his sleep, but he sure is a riot as his bumbling CEO who thinks that (for example) having gender-neutral bathrooms in his offices will be enough to mask his laughable inadequacies as a leader.  "I am the son of a mother, and the nephew of a female aunt. Some of my best friends... are Jewish!"   

Gerwig simply does more than anyone had any right to expect her to do with this live action iteration of such a beloved and cherished mass-marketed product.  What makes BARBIE stand out so proudly apart from the pack is its willingness to both respect and criticize the toyline in equal respect.  As mentioned earlier and on a technical level, this is a masterful achievement of movie fakery in making all aspects of Barbieland feel tactile and real (at least as far it can for a home of plastic houses and plastic waves on beaches).  The endless visual delights of BARBIE are matched by its razor-sharp, affectionate-minded, and scathing scripting that acknowledges Barbie's longstanding and complicated legacy.  There are so very few summer blockbusters as routinely well rounded as BARBIE, and ones that cater to what certain audiences demand out of this type of film (so as to not alienate them) while also having a social conscience by diving into relatable themes that will certainly generate ample water cooler discussion afterwards.  

This BARBIE is laced with brains and beauty.  That's more than - ahem! - Kenough.  

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