Barbie is not the movie you think it is. And as it arrives in cinemas this week atop a pink tsunami of creativity from Greta Gerwig, I’m not even sure it’s the movie she and co-writer Noah Baumbach first imagined. Or rather, it’s just not that one movie, but several which have been squished together with buckets of glitter glue. Despite being only 114 minutes, this is very much a sprawling epic in hot pink miniature, within which resides vignettes, meta asides, and tonal switchbacks that explode with the type of ingenuity that suggests spontaneity and improvisation. It even at times feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch, often with the inconsistent humor to match.
While the marketing of the film has orbited around the type of uncanny casting that feels like the hand of fate—in this case Margot Robbie as Barbie—as well as its good vibes, Beach Blanket Bingo aesthetic, almost everything you’ve seen in the trailers is relegated to the movie’s first 25 minutes. And that’s a good thing since the sugar rush of the earliest sequences in Barbieland is so severe that consuming it for a half hour is like one of those novelty Instagram-friendly ice cream shops you’ve seen; dazzling in a screen grab, but a Diabetes diagnosis after the third bite.
No, the actual film Gerwig made is so much weirder than just fun, fun, fun under a pink pastel sun. Her film is exceedingly ambitious, funny, thought-provoking, and a bit all over the place. No matter your takeaway though, you can rest assured Gerwig did not play with her toys the way Mattel would normally condone in one of their 30-second TV ads, which is an undeniable victory for what surely started as a toy commercial.
Indeed, this tension between the toyetic responsibility of managing the Barbie brand and an indefatigable determination to subvert the plastic blankness of the product is one of the movie’s greatest strengths. The vanilla corporate-speak that’s colored reams of PR announcements you’ve seen over the years is baked into a vibrantly self-aware (and self-critical) gaze. This starts at no less than the dawn of time–or at least Stanley Kubrick’s approximation of it—with Helen Mirren narrating the creation of Barbie like she was God’s gift to the world, as opposed to Mattel’s annual present to shareholders. Gerwig and Mirren then almost immediately pivot into recounting all the product mistakes and commercial deadends from Mattel’s past with a gossipy glee usually reserved for tell-all memoirs.
It is through this voiceover we’re also introduced to Barbieland, a metaphysical construct/paradise where all the Barbie dolls that were ever made (and sometimes discontinued and hidden away) live in splendor. Here every day is the perfect day, and each Barbie is content in the knowledge that their existence has made the “Real World” a better place where young girls have grown into strong women unencumbered by any obstacles from the men in their lives. Right.
Among the Barbie ranks is President Barbie (Issa Rae), Doctor Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), and even Mermaid Barbie (Dua Lipa). However, our story pertains to the classic Stereotypical Barbie, which even Robbie describes herself to be. She is perfect, blonde, and always happy. Except for brief moments where she starts to think about death. And then gets flat feet. Also, to her horror, there’s something out there in the real world called… cellulite?
Eventually Robbie’s protagonist realizes she is having dark thoughts because a child she once belonged to in the Real World has gotten older and is likewise having anxieties more complex than a doll’s usual bandwidth. So she sets out to cross boundaries (and dimensions?) to find the girl. She’s even joined, much to her chagrin, by a cloying and needy semi-boyfriend, Ken (Ryan Gosling), who simply wants to be anywhere Barbie is. Yet when both enter our reality, their desires and needs begin changing drastically, especially as it becomes clear that Barbieland’s utopian ideal for women is far, far, far from the reality of a world where even Barbie’s makers at Mattel are an all-male boardroom dominated by a hysterical Will Ferrell.
The intelligence of Gerwig’s approach to the material is that this outline of the film’s first act conceals nearly everything she is really up to as a storyteller and stylist. She and production designer Sarah Greenwood, as well as costume designer Jacqueline Durran, bask in the opportunity to create life-sized recreations of Barbie’s dream house and clothes, complete with a pink slide Robbie uses and a blue swimming pool she does not (like all liquids in Barbieland, including the ocean, it’s actually plastic). However, these wonderfully artificial designs are their own kind of colorful holiday wrapping paper, which obscure much grander ideas.
That Barbie has always been a lightning rod in the cultural debates around feminism, women’s ability to succeed in the workforce, and how a patriarchal system influences the way young women see themselves (especially when compared to a stick-thin doll) is not only addressed by Barbie but is actually the point of the movie. While Gerwig somewhat sidesteps Barbie’s own thornier history with helping establish patriarchal standards at an early age, the filmmaker uses Barbie’s timeless effervescence to go to some challenging places for a mainstream comedy. Some will bemoan she needed to use an IP to do it, but Gerwig doesn’t waste the opportunity.
She embraces it in a film that is often jubilant, whimsical, and free-wheeling. The movie employs thick satirical gags, magical realism, fourth-wall breaking winks to the audience, and big swings at sentimentality. I cannot say all the elements work. The equally cartoonish nature of the Real World Barbie and Ken enter is so broadly drawn that it undercuts late-in-the-game grasps at emotional catharsis. When everything is heightened to the point of farce, the dramatic elements themselves feel synthetic, and the punchlines at Mattel’s expense in these sequences likewise come off like a CEO’s toothless self-deprecation.
That said, the casting never misses a step. Robbie is, of course, incandescent in the role of Barbie. Imbuing the icon with a childlike innocence, particularly during the movie’s first half, her character is by design introduced as kind of a blank canvas. Like a doll, she is at first whatever you might project on a seeming ideal. But as the movie goes along, Robbie slowly layers the performance with textures of regret, shame, anger, and eventually an identity completely divorced from a toy line.
Yet despite being called Barbie, it is shocking how much of the film really belongs to Gosling’s Ken. With washboard abs and a goofy grin, Gosling plays Ken as a doofus, yes, but his puppy dog desperation to be held in Barbie’s gaze conceals a subtle, and eventually shocking, depth.
At first glance, Ken is a smitten third-grader trapped in an adult’s body, however Gerwig and Gosling slowly reveal Ken is actually a man trapped in a land where there was never a patriarchy. What that reversal can mean when Ken enters the Real World is just one of the many meaty ideas Gerwig and Baumbach layer into the script, taking the film into unexpected directions—although sometimes at the expense of a clean narrative that by the end becomes more Ken’s story than Barbie’s. Yet Gosling is so damn good, especially when he devours a kind of Golden Age Hollywood musical showstopper at one point, that you can’t help but be won over.
Ultimately, Barbie is an impressive studio construct where Gerwig has figured out how to color outside the lines. She stuffs the 12-inch box that Mattel gave her with ideas, flourishes, and twists until it bursts into a kaleidoscopic rainbow of confetti. The aftermath makes for a bit of a candy-colored mess, and the film is still ensnared in some of the corporate boasts it’s eager to subvert, but the remnants on the floor are an unmistakable original. This really is art.
Barbie is in theaters on Friday, July 21.