There isn’t exactly a God in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (unless you count Helen Mirren’s omniscient narrator), but the director does experiment with creation myths. Barbieland, a parallel universe populated by iterations of the Mattel doll, is her sandbox. The toy conglomerate’s vast archive, a trove of successful products, middling ideas and discontinued merch, are the tools.
Gerwig delights in the richness and weirdness of her material in this clever send-up of Barbie dolls and their fraught legacy. It’s impressive how much the director, known for her shrewd and narratively precise dramas, has fit into a corporate movie. Barbie is driven by jokes — sometimes laugh-out-loud, always chuckle-worthy — that poke light fun at Mattel, prod the ridiculousness of the doll’s lore and gesture at the contradictions of our sexist society.
The Bottom Line A tricky balancing act of corporate fealty and subversion.
With Gerwig, the pleasure is always in the details. Her Barbieland — thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costuming — is a pink fever dream. A phantasmagoria of magenta and blush soundtracked by funky compositions by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, bubblegum anthems from Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice. Plastic trees and identical two-story Barbie dream homes line each avenue of this manufactured oceanside locale. Engineless vehicles roam the road but flying is the preferred mode of transportation. Think about it: Have you ever seen a Barbie take the stairs?
An army of Kens patrol the land’s pristine beaches. The chiseled dolls can’t rescue a drowning person or save anyone for that matter, but they do stand around and look pretty. 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 has won every Nobel prize and probably cured cancer. Barbieland is feminist utopia as inversion of our patriarchal reality. Voiceover commentary by Mirren add to its storybook quality.
That Barbieland isn’t structurally different from our world isn’t surprising. The representational doll has become an extension of political fantasy, an exercise in decade-dependent what-ifs. Barbie went to space, could vote and owned property long before many human women could. Her look has changed too, shifting to mirror society’s beauty politics.
Gerwig populates her pink vista with a range of Barbies played by a formidable and starry cast: Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Alexandra Shipp and Hari Nef are a few of the faces in the film. But the protagonist of this wily and fun comedy is Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), the blonde-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 the film’s other assorted Kens). The pair are a version of Eve and Adam, if Eve were God’s favorite and Adam acknowledged as the liability he was.
Their fall is not as righteous but just as dramatic. When Barbie finds her perfect life suddenly hobbled by existential thoughts, she seeks answers from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a doll whose traumatic history (she was played with “too hard”) has turned her into the kingdom’s sage. On the outcast Barbie’s advice, Stereotypical Barbie, with an all-too-eager Ken in tow, heads to real-world Los Angeles to find her little girl. The relationship between Barbies and their human owners is tenuously outlined, so it’s best not to think too deeply about how it all works.
California shatters Barbie’s sense of self and bolsters Ken’s. Faced with how the patriarchy has shaped the realities of the human world, Barbie realizes that she and her fellow dolls might not be as inspirational as they believed.
Greta slips in au courant commentary through Barbie’s encounters with real people: the all-male executive suite of Mattel (which includes Will Ferrell playing CEO); Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a teenager whose disdain for Mattel’s dolls is only outmatched by her hatred of fascism; and Sasha’s mother Gloria (a brilliant America Ferrera), a Mattel secretary with an indiscriminate love of the toy.
Those worried that the film would uncritically pedestal Handler’s invention have little to fear. Barbie lives up to its early tagline: “If you love Barbie…if you hate Barbie, this movie’s for you.”
Fulfilling this mission comes at a cost, though. There’s a tension between Gerwig’s effort to keep Barbie fun and to texture her source material with the emotional dexterity of her previous projects. After an unplanned detour separates her from Ken, Barbie makes her way back home ready to restore perfection to her routine. But her homecoming is a dour one; Barbie returns to see that Ken, armed with his newfound knowledge of the patriarchy, has transformed Barbieland.
The film largely avoids treading familiar ground (I’m thinking specifically of Life-Size, Disney’s early-aughts attempt at the doll-interacting-with-human thing) or becoming what it mocks because of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s smart screenplay, which sprinkles winking jokes throughout. The moments that aren’t just laughing at and with the crowd, however, are shoved into long, important monologues that, with each recitation, dull the impact of their message. The gestures feel politically hollow because the reality is that a film with this mandate just can’t do it all.
In some ways, Barbie builds on themes Gerwig explored in Lady Bird and Little Women. The film wrestles with the twisting journey of self-definition and the mercurial relationships between mothers and daughters. It’s fraught with the questions that plague artists and women trapped in a category-obsessed society.
The tension between Barbie as object and subject can be felt especially through Robbie’s performance. Barbie’s increased consciousness plays across the actress’ expressive eyes, which become steadily weighted by the forces of the human world. Her physical presence tells us something, too: Robbie moves mechanically in Barbieland because she’s a toy, but who’s to say she’s any less rigid in the real world?
However smartly done Gerwig’s Barbie is, an ominousness haunts the entire exercise. The director has successfully etched her signature into and drawn deeper themes out of a rigid framework, but the sacrifices to the story are clear. The muddied politics and flat emotional landing of Barbie are signs that the picture ultimately serves a brand.
This wouldn’t be as concerning if the future of films weren’t blighted by Mattel’s franchise ambitions. After all, we can’t get all our humanist lessons from corporate toymakers.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production companies: Heyday Films, LuckyChap Entertainment, NB/GG Pictures, Mattel
Cast: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Ariana Greenblatt, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Hari Nef, Dua Lipa, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Helen Mirren, John Cena, Michael Cera
Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenwriters: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach
Producers: David Heyman, Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Robbie Brenner
Executive producers: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach, Ynon Kreiz, Richard Dickson, Michael Sharp, Josey McNamara, Courtenay Valenti, Toby Emmerich, Cate Adams
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Music: Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt
Editor: Nick Houy
Casting: Allison Jones, Lucy Bevan
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 54 minutes