2023, PG-13, 114 min. Directed by Greta Gerwig. Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Issa Rae, Will Ferrell, Kate McKinnon, Hari Nef, Simu Liu, Dua Lipa, Emma Mackey, Kingsley Ben-Adir.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 21, 2023

The latest film from two-time Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig, writer and director of Lady Bird and Little Women, is a live-action Mattel production, marking the first time the iconic toy has ventured beyond computer-generated home entertainment made for little girls. Barbie is not made for little girls, per se, though it does open with them. Aping the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a group of stony-faced little girls joylessly play with boring old baby dolls. Then a sky-high Barbie (Robbie) – in her original 1950s black-and-white bathing suit, no less – reveals herself, and the little girls riot, drop-kicking their baby dolls in order to bend the knee to this plastic totem of womanhood, this monolith of blank, chic perfection.

It is a riot – little girls going feral is inherently funny – yet I found their frenzied revolt weirdly poignant. Barbie, the toy, seesaws in the culture between extremes: Is she an aspirational figure, or the fastest way to fuck up a kid’s relationship to her body? A gateway to the imagination, or a slammed door? Barbie, the movie – an exhilarating, generous, deeply handmade comedy about a mass-market product – revels in these extremes.

The script, by Gerwig and partner Noah Baumbach, establishes the parameters of this bubblegum-pink world in a zippy montage. Barbie Land is a matriarchal society, wherein Lawyer Barbie and Doctor Barbie and President Barbie, et al., are thriving, and the Kens mostly exist to look good and provide sexless companionship. (Yep, they’re all named Barbie or Ken, and the joke genuinely never gets old.) A bleach-blond Beach Ken (Gosling, perfectly hambone) pines terribly for Robbie’s Barbie, but she’s got other things on her mind: Mainly, that she’s been having very un-Barbie-like intrusive thoughts. “Do you guys ever think about dying?” she wonders aloud. Cue Barbie’s first existential crisis.

That crisis sends Barbie and Ken to the real world, where Barbie starts to understand what it means to be human (crying is “achy but good,” which tracks) and Ken responds giddily to his first exposure to the patriarchy. There’s also some slack business with the Mattel Board of Directors, and a more fruitful subplot featuring America Ferrera, in a lovely, graceful performance as a mom devastated by her tween daughter’s emotional distance. I question if the plot will hold up to a second viewing, but the fizzy disorientation of it, the wonder over what wild shit is going to happen next (a musical number, or an interrogation of the male gaze? Both!) is electric. There is such visual wit to the film, which pingpongs between “make-believe” and “real life,” the two-dimensional and three-dimensional (Barbie literally walks on water in this world, a thematically rich gag). Lest that all sound too hifalutin, there are some punchlines that made me honk with pleasure.

The movies are in existential crisis, too. We’ll pause here to lament that a generation of filmmaking talent has seen their career trajectories constrict to an IP pinpoint pupil and that we moviegoers are only being serviced big-budget movies attached to preexisting properties – a franchise, a comic book, a video game, a toy – in an ouroboros of ever-diminishing returns. That said, Barbie is about as personal and idiosyncratic a creative statement as you could conjure within the studio system. Every minute of this film is serving “theatre kid who went to Barnard and studied feminist theory” energy. In this film’s imagining, and manifest in Robbie’s energetic and nuanced portrayal, Barbie shares the same searching quality as Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Jo March. They are all fumbling for their purpose, their place in the world, and to feel at home in their own skin. Barbie becomes relatable, and it only took 64 years.

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Barbie, Greta Gerwig, Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Issa Rae, Will Ferrell, Kate McKinnon, Hari Nef, Simu Liu, Dua Lipa, Emma Mackey, Kingsley Ben-Adir

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