When a film-critic colleague of mine caught an early press screening of Barbie and immediately deemed it “batshit” on social media, I knew this much-anticipated summer blockbuster would be right up my alley. Part pop-art farce, part consumerist-culture satire, part feminist manifesto, Barbie is definitely one wild, weird, $145 million ride. I’m actually amazed that Warner Bros. Discovery (run by everyone’s least favorite CEO, the Scrooge McDuck-ish David Zaslav) is letting something so screwy and subversive play in theaters all over the world. For her big shot helming a studio tentpole, mumblecore siren-turned-Oscar-nominated filmmaker Greta Gerwig threw caution to the wind and made what could quite possibly be the most Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie ever made. After all, that iconic doll perfectly fit that title way before Natalie Portman started assuming the persona in movies.
Margot Robbie puts her blondeness on full display as the titular character. Actually, she plays Stereotypical Barbie, one of the many Barbies (played by, among others, LGBTQ actresses Hari Nef and Alexandra Shipp, Margot Robbie lookalike Emma Mackey, and Issa Rae as the President) that populate Barbieland, an inclusive, cotton candy-looking utopia where women run everything, musical numbers can break out at any time, and the men are just dashing eye candy named Ken. (Although Michael Cera is around as the discontinued Allan.)
When Stereotypical Barbie begins walking with flat feet and starts thinking about dying, Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, of course) advises her to venture out in the real world, and to find the sad Barbie owner that’s apparently been using her doll to work out some personal stuff.
It turns out the real world is more absurd and deranged than Barbieland. She’s immediately harassed both verbally and physically, but Barbie also learns that the world full of strong, independent women she thought she and her fellow Barbies inspired is mostly run by dumb, desperate men. At the top of this list is the CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell, giving the most zero of fucks), who spends most of the movie trying to get Barbie “back in the box.” But this male-dominated society intrigues Ken (Ryan Gosling), who tags along with Barbie on this trip to the other side. Once he learns of this thing called patriarchy, he unfortunately takes it back to Barbieland.
Along with co-screenwriter/life partner Noah Baumbach, Gerwig creates an endlessly surreal (and endlessly silly) journey where America’s favorite piece of plastic not only begins to have existential thoughts, but also starts wondering if her and her Barbie brethren have actually done more harm than good. Gerwig sets her ambitions high both visually and thematically. With help from such acclaimed veterans as production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran (who both worked on the Joe Wright movies Atonement and Anna Karenina), and with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto getting it all on camera, she presents Barbie’s artificial universe as a shiny land full of kinetic kitsch. In an era where movies continue to be shot and lit as dimly and murkily as possible, Barbie proudly, almost defiantly turns the brightness knob all the way up.
Does any of this make a lick of sense? Fuck no! Gerwig and Baumbach don’t even try to make all this dimension-hopping seem logical. (This mostly involves putting on a pair of rollerblades and skating through the Venice Beach Boardwalk.) Both Gerwig and Robbie (who also serves as producer) are more concerned with using IP to address the struggles women go through on the regular. Their gripes are mostly voiced by America Ferrera’s quietly frustrated mother, who, along with her feisty tween daughter (Ariana Greenblatt), aids Barbie in getting her mojo back.
With Barbie, Robbie practically declares she’s the Goldie Hawn of the new millennium, ready to play witty, gorgeous dames who can also be just as lost, neurotic, and vulnerable as the rest of us. (A mother-daughter comedy starring Hawn and Robbie just has to happen one of these days.) I may have to begrudgingly admit that Gosling, that pretty muhfucka, is a comic genius. He plays his Ken as your standard-issue incel, a sensitive doofus whose constant rejections from his alleged soulmate turns him into a scornful, hypermasculine dudebro. Thankfully, Gosling is too much of a studly, sympathetic clown to go full Andrew Tate.
Basically a live-action Lego Movie, Barbie is 114 minutes of clever, colorful chaos that’s also a sweet, self-referential salute to womanhood — and the toy that was always there for young girls when they were figuring all that out. If you are planning to do a Barbenheimer double feature, see this last. After the atomic, three-hour intensity of Christopher Nolan’s latest, seeing Barbie girls in their Barbie world will be a more adorable (but still anarchic) palate cleanser.
“Barbie” is in theaters today.