Tuesday, April 16, 2024

“BARBIE”

THE STORY – Barbie and Ken are having the time of their lives in the colorful and seemingly perfect world of Barbie Land. However, when they get a chance to go to the real world, they soon discover the joys and perils of living among humans.

THE CAST – Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman & Will Ferrell

THE TEAM – Greta Gerwig (Director/Writer) & Noah Baumbach (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 114 Minutes


It’s not hyperbole to say that Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” may be one of the most anticipated movies ever. Even beyond the innovative (and inescapable) marketing campaign — complete with tie-ins with nearly every major brand in the world — this is a movie that’s been in development for almost fifteen years (the first live-action Barbie film in fact, after forty computer-animated direct-to-video and streaming television films). First, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody turned in a draft of a script in 2015, then comedian Amy Schumer signed on to star in 2016 before departing the following year, followed by Anne Hathaway doing the same just a few months later. Then, finally, the project landed Margot Robbie as the lead in 2018, with Greta Gerwig announced to write and direct three years later and her partner Noah Baumbach coming aboard as her co-writer. Naturally, the involvement of Robbie — a two-time Oscar nominee and one of the most acclaimed and adored actresses of her generation (who resembles the “stereotypical” appearance of Barbie to a tee) — and Gerwig — who holds the unofficial title of “Mother of Film Twitter” after delivering two stone-cold classics with “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” (which can be almost directly credited with the increased inclusion of female voices in film criticism who found themselves “seen” in those two stories) — caused interest in the film to skyrocket. Every set photo or promotional material we’ve seen from the project since has only expedited that process, as it quickly became apparent that Gerwig was taking full advantage of her biggest budget to date ($145 million!) to craft a fiercely feminist yet fantastically fun “Barbie” blockbuster that spoke to current social issues while simultaneously celebrating (and commenting on) the lasting yet complicated legacy of the titular doll and the multi-million-dollar media empire she spawned. However, as with any film this hyped and hotly anticipated, there comes that one familiar and fateful question: can it ever possibly live up to such lofty expectations? But, with “Barbie,” Robbie, Gerwig, and co. don’t merely meet said expectations, they surpass them (and in the first five minutes), thanks to a daring dissection of this doll’s contributions to our culture that is bold, brilliant, and beautiful all at once; two note-perfect, playful, and unexpectedly poignant performances from Robbie and Ryan Gosling; and endlessly imaginative costume and production design instantly bound for Oscar attention (as much of the movie is).

The less you know about “Barbie” before seeing it, the better, but a brief summary — already set up perfectly by its countless terrific trailers and TV spots — won’t hurt. Robbie’s Barbie (known in Barbieland as “Stereotypical Barbie”) seemingly has it all: a spacious and sublimely designed Dreamhouse, too many best friends to count (all with progressive professions like “president” or “physicist,” and all of whom are also named Barbie, as Barbie is everyone and Barbie can do everything), and day after day filled with nothing but play and partying — that is, until one night at one of her famous “giant blowout parties with all the Barbies, planned choreography, and a bespoke song” when, mid-dance number, she poses the question, “do you guys ever think about dying?” Naturally, this impromptu acknowledgment of mortality puts a bit of a damper on the evening. Though Barbie is able to hastily cover herself when her inquiry is met with a sudden awkward silence, things only get worse from there as the façade of her seemingly “perfect” existence begins to fade. Her showers are cold, she’s falling off her roof instead of floating gracefully to the ground, and her heels are — gasp! — on the said ground too. The only solution? She must seek out “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), aka that one poor Barbie that children decide to break and/or beat up in their collection, who tells our Stereotypical Barbie she must travel to “the real world” and reconnect with the child who owns her toy counterpart, as only some sort of strain in the relationship between “child” and “toy” is to explain for what’s happening here. The solution can only be found on “the other side” (lest Mattel gets involved and “fix” her themselves — but that’s a whole other story). And so, Barbie takes off on an adventure in pursuit of these pressing answers, inadvertently taking Ken (Gosling) with her as he stows away in her car in an attempt to get closer to Barbie (and really, just so she’ll finally give him the time of day). However, nothing could prepare either for how different our world is from the feminist utopia that is Barbieland. When exposed to the mess of our modern-day gendered power dynamics, they realize that Barbie’s existential crisis is far from their only problem.

If it wasn’t already clear, Gerwig and Baumbach try to take on a lot in “Barbie,” and that somewhat substantial synopsis can’t even do the scope and scale of their social commentary justice. On top of addressing the ever-evolving machinations of modern feminism and the inherent pull (and omnipresence) of the patriarchy, the two also tackle the impact of the classic Barbie iconography on generations and generations of girls and how the idea of Barbie has been altered and amended time after time over the years in order to best benefit Mattel’s bottom line, even if they don’t personally believe in what message they’re molding her into. As a result, it’s easy to see how you can pull a story about “Barbie’s existential crisis” out of all of this and center a script around the most famous/infamous doll of all-time struggling to define herself for herself and know where (and what) she fits in this world after being told she’s anything and everything for decades and yet feeling like she’s still… nothing at the end of the day at the same time. Or, more specifically, nothing good. As such, though this is undoubtedly a movie that’s trying to Say Something™ about all these “important” themes Gerwig and Baumbach have twisted together so tenderly and thoughtfully, it is first and foremost a story about “coming-of-age” (which shouldn’t come as a surprise for any fans of Gerwig’s filmography thus far) and the female coming-of-age in particular. In Barbieland, Barbie occupies an existence defined entirely by pink, pleasure, and endless possibility. It’s a world where women rule everything, and equal rights are given; all gender-related sociopolitical squabbles have been solved, and the women won. And naturally, this is what Barbie assumes the real world will also be like. But, unfortunately, as most in the audience are already aware, this is the furthest thing from the truth. Instead, Barbie enters an environment where women are admonished, assaulted, and often just outright abhorred for no good reason aside from an ingrained aversion to our very identities. She scrambles to make sense of her surroundings but comes up short.

It’s a journey that’s all too familiar to anyone who has experienced the painful expanse of our awareness of social inequities as we transition from girlhood to adulthood and a journey that’s only become more brutal in this current cultural climate. For years, girls spend every day playing peacefully and imagining all they can do and be when they grow up, with little initially dissuading them from this freewheeling fantasizing as they remain isolated from the dreadful “reality.” And, that leap from the comfort of childhood to the agony of adolescence has been an even more exasperating experience in recent years, as we’ve consistently seen women make so many gains in society — women who subsequently become role models whose stories serve as the foundations of our own flourishing feminism as children, only to lose ground left and right in the last decade, painting a much different picture for our future than the one we’d dreamed up in our youth, where the fight for equality was almost over. We only had more social advancement to anticipate. Do we give up? Do these current sociocultural setbacks seem to say that it’s futile to attempt to resist the power of the patriarchy, and we can only merely accept complacency within it or ostracization and vilification outside of it? Or is there another way? Gerwig thinks so (even though it might take her Barbie a bit longer to reach that realization) and instead argues that womanhood isn’t all the fun and freedom we felt it’d be when we were five, but we also don’t have to abandon those ideals entirely. Maybe, through the (admittedly arduous) acceptance and begrudging embrace of the everyday exhaustion of our lives — and the simultaneous retention of our innate strength — we can better endeavor to reconcile all these cultural complications and contradictions and find a way to move through the world cautiously, but authentically, at long last (a point expressed through a mightily unforgettable monologue delivered by America Ferrera’s Gloria, a strong-willed supporting standout). 

There’s no better protagonist for a parable like this than Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie,” who represents the idea and image of Barbie as we’ve known her for over 60 years, yet also has nothing else discernible about her personality the way President Barbie (Issa Rae), Dr. Barbie (a hysterical Hari Nef), or even the aforementioned Weird Barbie does. People have surely had a lot of opinions about her, with some arguing that she’s solely and directly responsible for placing unrealistic beauty standards on little girls from the 1960s to today; others respond in defense by declaring that she was only meant to represent and resemble one type of woman and never set expectations for an entire gender, though neither side has ever been able to meet in the middle. But, she has never been given the chance to speak (or even think) for herself. Aesthetically, it’s clear that Robbie is perfectly cast here; she simply is Barbie, or at least, stereotypical Barbie, but it’s the empathy and empowerment she explores through her performance that really provides it with unforeseen depth and dimension, as her evolution from innocence to insecurity to eventual enlightenment is portrayed so persuasively and poignantly that it’s impossible not to be swept up in the openhearted sincerity of her existential odyssey and walk away monstrously moved, especially for women who will see so many familiar fears and anxieties captured in her “awakening.” Robbie is perhaps best known for her “big” performances (think “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “I, Tonya,” and last year’s “Babylon“). Yet, she’s allowed to do some of the most nuanced — and subsequently stirring — work of her career here, most notably in the film’s tremendously touching final fifteen minutes, when Barbie is finally given the space to write her own story. Robbie has also always been a gifted comedienne. She flexes those muscles in an enormously entertaining fashion here (particularly in the first half). Still, her actualization of the more affecting elements of Barbie’s arc gives the movie, and this role, its magic.

However, though this movie is only titled after Barbie, it truly is as much Ken’s journey as it is hers, and Gosling is given the role of a lifetime as well by Gerwig and Baumbach, imbuing Ken with an agency of his own for what feels like the first time in forever. After only being defined by his relationship with Barbie for six decades — and, in this film, finding his every romantic advance denied by the girl of his dreams — “Barbie” sends Ken on a journey to “find himself” right alongside his long-term kinda-sorta girlfriend, with both coming to radically different conclusions. To go too in-depth into Ken’s self-discovery would veer into spoiler territory, so let’s just say that comedy has always been Gosling’s strong suit (see: “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “The Nice Guys,” and even “La La Land“), and those strengths are on full display here in top form. This himbo with a heart of gold is taken in some pretty daring directions throughout the film, things that could’ve fallen flat with any lesser actor or actor unwilling to embrace the satirical absurdity of each plot development. But Gosling is game from start to finish and never phones it in, while additionally never reducing his performance (or Ken) to parody either. It’s a tricky tightrope act to walk, and Gosling performs it like a pro, nearly stealing the entire show in the process (his side-splitting solo number “I’m Just Ken” is an ingenious instant all-timer). The Academy is hit-or-miss when it comes to acknowledging comedic performances — for every Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” or Robert Downey Jr. in “Tropic Thunder,” there’s an Emily Blunt in “The Devil Wears Prada,” or Eddie Murphy in “Dolemite Is My Name” — but Gosling’s work here undoubtedly deserves to be one of the few they do take note of, both for his brazen commitment to said comedy and also the unexpected humanity he’s able to unearth in this witless but well-meaning hunk.

From top to bottom, “Barbie” is simply a masterfully-made movie beginning with the endlessly imaginative costume and production design (that brings classic Barbie outfits and playsets to life in colorful and all-consuming cinematic glory) and continuing with Gerwig’s own dynamic and dazzling direction. This is the largest film she has ever made, but although some directors see their style fade away when they enter the studio system, “Barbie” feels like a Greta Gerwig movie from the first frame to the last, always keeping character and emotion at the forefront, even if there are a few more comic setpieces and musical numbers this time around. And thank god for that since, as this film’s elongated production process indicates, it hasn’t been easy figuring out how to make a Barbie movie, let alone a good one. But, Gerwig managed to crack the code, covering the labyrinthine legacy of Barbie as a brand, the evolving roles men and women occupy in our world, and the never-ending struggle within and against preexisting social constraints placed on us, trying to answer questions about gender and feminism and the patriarchy and so many more absurdly overcomplicated social concepts that we’ve been struggling to answer since the dawn of time. And, though one film can’t fix all that’s wrong with our culture, it sure is a treat to watch one try by taking an adored IP and aspiring to use it as a launching pad to examine some of the most profound inquiries about our existence. Some might even be caught off-guard by how subversive Gerwig and Baumbach get with their storytelling here, pushing buttons most mainstream blockbusters would avoid altogether. But, in an era defined mainly by soulless sequels and capitalist-driven cash grabs, we can all appreciate a $145 million adaptation of a beloved brand that’s still somehow backed by one of the most vital and unapologetically vibrant voices in the business today.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Greta Gerwig delivers a bold, brilliant, and downright beautiful dissection of the lasting yet complicated legacy of Barbie, the evolving roles men and women occupy in our world, and the never-ending struggle within and against preexisting social constraints placed on us — aided by two note-perfect, playful, and unexpectedly poignant performances from Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and endlessly imaginative costume and production design.

THE BAD - Some might be caught off-guard by the subversive risks Gerwig and Baumbach take with their storytelling and social commentary.

THE OSCARS - Best Original Song (Won), Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design & Best Original Song (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 10/10

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Zoe Rose Bryant
Zoe Rose Bryant
Writes for AwardsWatch & Loud & Clear Reviews. Omaha based film critic & Awards Season pundit.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Greta Gerwig delivers a bold, brilliant, and downright beautiful dissection of the lasting yet complicated legacy of Barbie, the evolving roles men and women occupy in our world, and the never-ending struggle within and against preexisting social constraints placed on us — aided by two note-perfect, playful, and unexpectedly poignant performances from Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and endlessly imaginative costume and production design.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Some might be caught off-guard by the subversive risks Gerwig and Baumbach take with their storytelling and social commentary.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-song/">Best Original Song</a> (Won), <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actress/">Best Supporting Actress</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actor/">Best Supporting Actor</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-adapted-screenplay/">Best Adapted Screenplay</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-costume-design/">Best Costume Design</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-production-design/">Best Production Design</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-song/">Best Original Song</a> (Nominated) <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>10/10<br><br>"BARBIE"