'Barbie' review: Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Greta Gerwig's doll comedy that delivers the fun but confuses the politics

‘Barbie’ review: Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Greta Gerwig’s doll comedy that delivers the fun but confuses the politics

There isn’t exactly a God in Greta Gerwig Barbie (unless you count Helen Mirren’s omniscient narrator), but the director experiments with creation myths. Barbieland, a parallel universe populated by iterations of the Mattel doll, is his sandbox. The toy conglomerate’s vast archive, a treasure trove of blockbuster products, mediocre ideas, and discontinued merch, are the tools.

Gerwig revels in the richness and strangeness of her material in this clever parody of Barbie dolls and their complex legacy. She is impressive how the director, known for her astute and narratively precise dramas, has inserted herself into a corporate film. Barbie it’s driven by jokes—sometimes outrageous laughter, always chuckle-worthy—that poke fun at Mattel, prod the ridicule of doll lore, and hint at the contradictions of our sexist society.

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The bottom line

A difficult balance between corporate loyalty and subversion.

Release date: Friday 21st July
Launch: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, America Ferrera, Ariana Greenblatt, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell
Director: Greta Gervig
Screenwriters: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach

Rated PG-13, 1 hour 54 minutes

With Gerwig, the pleasure is always in the details. Her Barbieland, thanks to the scenography by Sarah Greenwood and the costumes by Jacqueline Durran, is a pink fever dream. A phantasmagoria of magenta and blush accompanied by funky compositions by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, bubblegum anthems by Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice. Plastic trees and identical two-story Barbie dream houses line every avenue of this oceanfront manufactured locale. Non-motorized vehicles roam the street, but flying is the mode of transportation of choice. Think about it: have you ever seen a Barbie walk up the stairs?

An army of Kens patrol the pristine beaches of the land. The chiseled dolls can’t save a drowning person or save anyone, but they stand and look great. The Barbies do the real work: she is the president and all the members of the Supreme Court. She is a doctor and a physicist. She won all the Nobel prizes and probably cured cancer. Barbieland is feminist utopia as an inversion of our patriarchal reality. Mirren’s voice-over commentary adds to the storybook quality of her.

That Barbieland is structurally no different from our world is not surprising. The representative doll has become an extension of the political fantasy, an exercise in decade-dependent what-ifs. Barbie went to space, was able to vote, and owned property long before many human women. Her appearance has also changed, shifting to reflect the company’s beauty policy.

Gerwig populates its pink panorama with a series of Barbies played by a formidable and starry cast: Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Alexandra Shipp and Hari Nef are some of the faces of the film. But the star of this witty and funny comedy is stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), the blond-haired, blue-eyed manifestation of Ruth Handler’s imagination. Her Ken counterpart is played with impressive heart and humor by Ryan Gosling (with Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir and John Cena among other assorted Kens in the film). The couple is a version of Eve and Adam, if Eve was God’s favorite and Adam acknowledged the responsibility that she was.

Their fall is not as just but equally dramatic. When Barbie finds her perfect life suddenly thwarted by existential thoughts, she seeks answers from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a doll whose traumatic history (played with “too hard”) has turned her into the kingdom’s sage. On the advice of outcast Barbie, stereotypical Barbie, with an all-too-eager Ken in tow, heads to real-world Los Angeles to find her baby girl. The relationship between Barbie and their human owners is softly outlined, so it’s best not to think too deeply into how that works.

California destroys Barbie’s sense of self and strengthens Ken’s. Confronted with how patriarchy has shaped the reality of the human world, Barbie realizes that she and her fellow dolls may not be as inspiring as they thought.

Greta sneaks in aware commentary through Barbie’s encounters with real people: Mattel’s all-male executive suite (which includes Will Ferrell as CEO); Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a teenager whose disdain for Mattel dolls is surpassed only by her hatred of fascism; and Sasha’s mother Gloria (a brilliant America Ferrera), a Mattel secretary with an indiscriminate love of toys.

Those who worried that the film would be an uncritical pedestal of Handler’s invention have little to fear. Barbie lives up to its opening tagline: “If you love Barbie…if you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.”

However, fulfilling this mission comes at a cost. There is a tension between Gerwig’s efforts to maintain Barbie entertaining and to structure his source material with the emotional dexterity of his previous projects. After an unexpected detour separates her from Ken, Barbie returns home ready to get her routine back to perfection. But his homecoming is grim; Barbie returns to see that Ken, armed with his new knowledge of patriarchy, has transformed Barbieland.

The film largely avoids treading familiar ground (I’m thinking specifically of Full size, Disney’s early years attempt the thing that doll interacts with human) or become what it makes fun of due to the clever script by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, which sprinkles winking jokes throughout. Moments that aren’t all laughter and with the crowd, however, are propelled into long, weighty monologues that, with each recitation, dull the impact of their message. The gestures seem politically empty because the reality is that a film with this mandate cannot do everything.

In some ways, Barbie it builds on the themes explored by Gerwig Lady Bird AND Little Women. The film deals with the tortuous journey of self-definition and the changing relationships between mothers and daughters. It is full of questions that plague artists and women trapped in a society obsessed with categories.

The tension between Barbie as object and subject can especially be felt through Robbie’s performance. Barbie’s heightened awareness plays through the actress’s expressive eyes, which are constantly being weighed down by the forces of the human world. Even her physical presence tells us something: Robbie moves mechanically in Barbieland because she’s a toy, but who’s to say she’s any less stiff in the real world?

However Gerwig is cleverly done Barbie that is, a disquiet haunts the entire exercise. The director has successfully etched her signature and drawn deeper themes from a rigid framework, but the sacrifices to the story are evident. The muddled politics and flat emotional landing of Barbie they are signs that the image ultimately serves a brand.

This wouldn’t be so worrisome if the future of movies wasn’t ruined Mattel’s franchise ambitions. After all, we can’t get all of our liberal arts lessons from corporate toy makers.