Barbie party gets existential in out-of-the-box movie adventure that's fun if fleeting
The new movie Barbiepresents a rare instance in which audience members will be approaching it from multiple different angles. Adults who grew up playing with the doll will be hoping for a bit of nostalgia (or, perhaps, revenge on the impossibly-proportioned female figure). Barbie aficionados will be looking to see if their favorite doll made the cut. Kids and parents might be thinking it will be a fun and frivolous time at the movies. And cinephiles will be curious how Oscar-nominated writer/director Greta Gerwig and Oscar-nominated co-writer Noah Baumbach will imprint their style on an iconic piece of pop culture.
Turns out, the movie has a little bit of something for each of those factions and more. Barbie (Margot Robbie) – or, as she refers to herself more than once, Stereotypical Barbie – lives in the utopia of Barbie Land with innumerable other Barbies, including President Barbie (Issa Rae), Nobel Prize Winner Barbie (Emma Mackey), Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), and more. But suddenly Barbie turns into Existential Crisis Barbie when she starts having thoughts about death (wow, it really does have something in common with Oppenheimer!).
Weird Barbie sends Barbie off to the Real World to figure things out, joined by Ken (Ryan Gosling), who has no sense of self outside of his “relationship” with Barbie. The journey is illuminating in many ways, with visions of the patriarchal society sending Barbie into a deeper funk and Ken on a misguided journey. Real World mother and daughter Gloria (American Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) join Barbie to try to help her regain her confidence.
As with Barbie herself, Barbie is several things at once. It’s a self-referential ode to the many types of Barbies, Kens, and other dolls that have been put out over the years, complete with shots at parent company Mattel. It’s a fun romp with double entendre jokes, song-and-dance sequences, and enough pink to cover the entire world. And it’s an examination of outdated gender politics and perhaps an over-correction by the people who decided that Barbie could be anything and anyone she wanted to be.
While the joke is that Ken has no meaning outside of Barbie, the film gives Ken – and other Kens played by Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and more – a big part of the story. Even though involving the Kens to a large degree pays off in the final act, their one-note nature keeps them from having a big impact overall. Ironically, the most important male character in the film ends up being Allan (Michael Cera), a milquetoast doll who has an empathetic soul.
Where the film ultimately lands on the place Barbie holds in the world will be up for interpretation, but it's far from just a two-hour toy commercial. Gerwig and Baumbach, while definitely straying far from early collaborations like Frances Ha, still make the story their own, delivering commentary that wouldn’t come from many other filmmakers. And if you laugh a lot along the way, then all the better.
Robbie is, of course, perfect casting as Barbie, a fact that is referenced on several different occasions in the film itself. But it’s more than just her looks, as she understands the mission and delivers the performance necessary for this particular role. Gosling is not quite as successful, but still makes for a fun Ken. There are times that the actors playing other Barbies are so funny that you’ll wish Gerwig had made it all about them instead.
Barbie is very entertaining in the moment, but like the dolls themselves, it feels like a movie that will be forgotten once the novelty wears off. Its overall message is obvious but one worth repeating, and Gerwig makes sure the audience pays attention to the very last frame.
Barbie is now playing in theaters.