A director beloved for their arthouse movies gets tasked with the dreaded white whale of Hollywood: making a great movie out of a well-known property. The result? A movie that is inarguably an IP movie. But also? A movie that can’t be divorced from that director’s profoundly distinct vision.
Forty years ago, this described Robert Altman’s Popeye, a bizarre, mumbly musical that saw the auteur turn the spinach-eating sailor into a frazzled character in, well, an Altman movie. Today, the same words can be used to describe Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.
A flashy, glossy vision in pink, Barbie is, first and foremost, a commercial. The fantasy comedy centers around arguably the greatest product ever developed. Since her introduction in 1959, the Barbie doll has superseded nearly every other toy to become a bonafide cultural icon — and a hypocritical representation of the capitalistic machine that created her. Gerwig is intensely aware of this and turns her commercial for the most fashionable toy of all time into a treatise on girlhood, womanhood, and everything in between. While it’s not as biting or sharp as it imagines itself to be, Barbie’s plastic parade of camp and goofy hijinks slowly give way to the kind of tender, insecure emotion that Gerwig is so damn good at.
Barbie starts at the dawn of time, where little girls in pinafore dresses play with boring baby dolls on top of cliffs. But then, a giant Barbie, clad in the doll’s debut black-and-white swimsuit, arrives, prompting the girls to smash their dolls in a hilarious homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This absurd scene sets the stage for the rest of Barbie. The entire movie is packed with similar homages (from Singin’ in the Rain and Busby Berkeley nods to The Godfather references), but they’re explicitly remade in Barbie’s, and by extension Gerwig’s, image. A more cynical critic might say that Gerwig is simply recycling better films that have come before, but there’s no room for cynicism in Barbie. It’s a movie that is as earnest and enthusiastic as its lead heroine.
Margot Robbie plays Stereotypical Barbie, just a girl living in a Barbie world and having an existential crisis. Despite her wonderful, unchanging life in the utopian Barbie Land, Barbie has been plagued by irrepressible thoughts of death, a nagging sense of sadness, and (gasp!) flat feet. With the help of Weird Barbie (a perfectly cast Kate McKinnon), she discovers these are the symptoms of a tear in the fabric of reality caused by her real-world owner’s own sadness. To fix it, Barbie must venture into the real world, find her owner, and help her.
Reluctantly, Barbie leaves Barbie Land, but she’s followed by Ken (a superb Ryan Gosling), who is desperate to prove he’s more than just Ken. But their excursion in the real world (which includes a delightful sequence where the two of them travel through cartoon fields and cardboard oceans) has more consequences than they could have anticipated.
When Barbie arrives in Los Angeles, she’s shocked by how little she really matters to women. Barbie thought she was a role model, and that women ruled the world. But when she finds the girl she believes to be her owner, Barbie is shattered to learn that this is in fact the opposite.
Meanwhile, Ken has the inverse experience. In the real world, he’s respected and listened to. The ludicrous montage where he learns about something called “the patriarchy” is one of Barbie’s comedic highlights — a barrage of Americana, horses, trucks, and Rocky images. But it’s also the turning point for the movie, leading Barbie and Ken’s excursion to the real world to have damaging effects on both Barbie Land and all of reality.
Gerwig co-wrote Barbie with her longtime collaborator and partner Noah Baumbach, with whom she’s crafted indie darlings like the exquisite Frances Ha. At first glance, it seems Barbie has little in common with the achingly tender dramas where Gerwig made her name, and certainly, Barbie lacks the naked emotions of Lady Bird and the structural genius of Little Women. But Barbie is a Trojan horse, using its pink plastic shell to probe at identity, womanhood, and the social ills of capitalism.
The film’s most surprisingly tender moments come in little shockwaves when Gerwig lets the glossy Barbie facade fall back to bask in moments of intimacy, childhood memories, and love (including a montage seemingly inspired by Toy Story 2’s famous “When She Loved Me” scene). These come through most powerfully when Gerwig unleashes the untempered monologues that have made her films modern classics. (Gerwig didn’t need to put a line like, “We must stand still so our daughters can look back and see how far they’ve come” in a Barbie movie, but she did.) However, those sweet moments do sometimes feel like they’re battling for airtime with the rest of the movie’s overwhelming sense of camp.
The comedy, to be fair, is a delight. Gerwig and Baumbach’s script, while a little structurally confused, is jam-packed with jokes and absurd moments that keep the film moving at a breezy pace. But while the entire cast is on the same wavelength when it comes to the movie’s comedic stylings — especially Will Ferrell, who plays the nameless Mattel CEO like a cross between a grown-up Buddy the Elf and President Business — it’s Gosling who’s the MVP. Gosling’s performance as Ken is both hilariously guileless (if you were to look up the word “himbo” in the dictionary, a picture of him would appear) and a little wistful. If Barbie is the ideal woman, he’s barely a half-formed idea of a man, and Gosling plays the inherent comedy and tragedy of that with the energy of a confused golden retriever. But Robbie is not to be underrated, deftly balancing the film’s heightened humor of its first half with some of the uncertain tenderness of its second.
Barbie, when it comes down to it, is a coming-of-age film. While Gerwig’s excitable direction and the film’s eye-popping set design easily distract from its central message, Barbie’s sincerity shines through. Its message may be a bit simplistic and delivered in feminist platitudes, but like anything covered in glitter and jewels, it’s a bit easier to sell. Some may call Gerwig a sellout, but she’s the one who hid a moving, emotional journey of self-discovery inside a toy commercial.