Synopsis: Barbie suffers a crisis that leads her to question her world and her existence.
Stars: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell, Hari Nef, Emma Mackey, Dua Lipa, Simu Liu, Scott Evans, John Cena, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Helen Mirren, Michael Cera, Emerald Fennell
Director: Greta Gerwig
Running Length: 114 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Ask around, and you’ll find that everyone has their special Barbie origin story. Some had their personal Barbie (or Barbies) that provided hours of imaginative play; other Barbie-less wraiths like me looked forward to spending time with their cousins who routinely piled their tiny-waisted dolls naked in a trunk when they were bored with them. I would find them, redress them, and treat them like the treasures they were before hurriedly putting them back when I heard footsteps on the stairs. When I finally managed to get my own Barbie (Day-to-Night, and she was fabulous, thank you!) I ensured she was always in perfect condition and, like her name implied, always dressed for the occasion.
All these years later, I’ve been thinking a lot about my early experience with Barbie (and cursing the fact I misplaced Day-to-Night) as the release of the new big-budget Warner Brothers movie based on the timeless toy inched closer to release. Carefully guided by parent company Mattel, Barbie is arriving with high expectations and significant buzz, facing off against another much-anticipated feature (Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer) not so much as counterprogramming to but as a powerhouse duel with. At least that’s how the media positions it…another way that the arguably female-skewing Barbie brand is again in direct competition with a more masculine form of industry.
It’s hard not to watch co-writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and not hold it to a higher standard than other summer fare after the many months of hyperbolic enthusiasm drummed up by the studio marketing department. With a dazzling cast (there’s barely a breath taken down to the most minor role that’s not from the lungs of a recognizable celebrity), eye-popping production design, and a script co-scribed by Gerwig’s partner Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), Barbie is occasionally a lot of movie to unwrap, but it’s also one with a clear point of view. Maybe best of all, aside from a few lapses in logic, for a film centered around a fantasy dreamland of living dolls and their hunky plastic boyfriends, it’s remarkably more lifelike with its emotions than many similar movies set in the real world.
Every day is the “best day” for Barbie (Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad) and her friends (also all different variations of Barbies). Living in her Dream House that she literally floats out of with a smile, she spends her time in Barbieland attending the female-led functions that keep things running smoothly. President Barbie (Issa Rae, The Lovebirds) makes sure the laws are in place with the all-female Supreme Court, while Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney, Dumbo), Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef, Bad Things), Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey, Death on the Nile) and Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp, tick, tick…BOOM!) spread their wealth of knowledge when they aren’t accepting awards or hanging at the beach with Robbie’s “Stereotypical” Barbie. It’s always fun, and each day ends with Girl’s Night. Yay!
Not so yay for Ken (Ryan Gosling, The Gray Man), though. Only truly happy when Robbie’s Barbie gives him the time of day, he’s constantly vying for her attention while working his one job: “beach.” Fending off the charms of the other Kens: (Simu Liu, One True Loves), Kingsley Ben Adir (One Night in Miami…), and Scott Evans (Midnight Kiss) and establishing his place as #1 Ken keeps him in a consistent state of agony and his existential crisis is starting to tear him apart. Little does he know that Barbie is also having strange feelings of her own, feelings that don’t align with the never-ending party of Barbieland. What is her purpose? What is death? Simply asking the question sets her on a strange journey of discovery, taking her past the borders of Barbieland into the Real World. She may find the answers she seeks…but will the trouble she brings back in the process be worth it?
While I’ve never doubted the talent, I’ve struggled with Robbie’s output over the past few years, wondering when she would get out of a frustrating rut of playing characters with familiar arcs. The early electricity she showed and that would occasionally pop was becoming hard to catch, but the Oscar-nominee has recaptured it here. It’s Robbie’s strongest work in years, striking a touching balance of emotions and (like all of the characters) never playing the “dolls” as silly. Gosling is rip-roaringly tubular as a desperately needy, hopelessly devoted Ken. If you ever wanted to see the full range of what Gosling can do, this is the total package. Comedy, drama, music, action, stunts, and yes, the abs are of steel. It’s terrifically realized and a performance to stand back and admire. The supporting cast is strong throughout, with Kate McKinnon (Bombshell) as a “Weird” Barbie (she was “played with too hard”), Michael Cera (Gloria Bell) as random male doll Allan, and America Ferrera (How to Train Your Dragon 2) standouts among high-class stars.
It took years to get a Barbie movie off the ground, with Mattel not wanting to rush production on such a key property. Luckily, this Barbie movie represents the interests of the company and its target audience quite well, with Gerwig’s ga-ga-ga-gorgeously designed film turning out to be an enlightening two hours. Maybe not as consistently LOL as you might think, it lures you in with its fun and flash dance party vibe but eventually reveals itself to be a deep examination of who we are and why we exist. (Bask in the glory of the beautifully somber Billie Eilish song that plays during the movie and again over the credits) Unsurprisingly, the script is filled with the offhandedly profound dialogue that made Gerwig (Little Women) and Baumbach an excellent team to breathe life into this doll.
Aside from leaning further into the outlandishness of the comedy, I wish a little more time was spent connecting the logic dots that were placed by the writers (hey, they placed them!), and it’s an absolute CRIME Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’ wasn’t used in its entirety. Even without the song (used as part of a remix over the credits), you’ll still want to go party with this Barbie.