What does it mean to be a woman? It’s a question as complicated and cliche as asking, “Who really is Barbie?” Greta Gerwig attempts to answer both in her weird, vibrant feminist musical comedy named after Mattel’s infamous doll. Starring a stirring Margot Robbie and a delicious Ryan Gosling, Barbie is an imperfect nostalgic ride through women’s most existential questions, something you wouldn’t expect from the most anticipated film of the summer.
When we first meet Barbie, narrator Helen Mirren describes the doll’s initial impact on the toy market. Before spinning off into different careers, colors, and iterations, its first release disrupted the type of play young girls were doing. Instead of baby dolls, which mimicked motherhood, you had a statuesque woman with curves and boobs to introduce womanhood. With a clever nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are then spun off to Barbieland, where everything is perfect and bespoke songs are the norm.
As Stereotypical Barbie™, Robbie’s character supports the rest of her Barbie sisters as they rule their world with strength, knowledge, and feminist ideology. All truly believe that the real world’s systematic problems were solved with their creation. Coexisting with them are the hapless and highly jealous Kens, Skippers (which we only initially see one of), a Midge, and an Allan, Ken’s best friend played wonderfully by Michael Cera.
In the first 30 or so minutes of the film, Gerwig’s production team makes it known they are not here to play. This set and colorization is a feast for the eyes. Whether you’re a Barbie fan or casually played as a child, there’s something to connect to. From the sticker decal that replaces the contents of the fridge to the waterless shower and pool one can walk on, Gerwig, her team, and co-writer Noah Baumbach have thought about every detail meticulously and how it functions in a kid’s world.
After another perfect, pink day, Barbie starts to have feelings of overwhelming doubt. She starts thinking about mortality and discovers cellulite on her thighs. After expressing her concern to her peers, she goes off to get answers from Weird Barbie (a pitch-perfect Kate McKinnon), who was ostracized from the rest after someone played with her too hard, cutting her hair and drawing on her face.
She tells Barbie that she needs to go to the real world to connect with the little girl who is playing with her, in order to make her existential crisis go away. As Barbie travels, Ken (Gosling) hitches a ride with her, much to her annoyance. Gerwig described Gosling’s performance as “some combination of Marlon Brando meets Gene Wilder meets John Barrymore meets John Travolta.” This couldn’t be a more accurate description. He steals and savors every scene he is in with naïveté and himbo energy. His dumb emotionality is one of the smartest things I’ve ever seen onscreen. His wide-eyed, confused and slightly angry expressions bring laughs you weren’t expecting, where you weren’t expecting them.
When they make it to the real world, Barbie has trouble adjusting and finding the child playing with her. Her flamboyant presence causes a stir at Mattel and a group of execs led by Will Ferrel go to find her. The “real world” storyline leaves much to be desired, as not a lot of time is spent there. I was expecting more of Amy Adams in Enchanted Energy. Instead, Barbie finds her owner (Ariana Greenblatt) and realizes that her very big feelings belong to her child’s mother, a Mattel secretary named Gloria.
Meanwhile, wanting to be loved by Barbie and resenting her for not returning his feelings, Ken finds the patriarchy of real world absolutely wonderful and uses it to gain the upper hand on his should-be lady love. As everyone returns to Barbieland, they find that it was not the same as they left it.
Laugh-out-loud funny, Barbie has some of the best pop-culture jokes of the year. Its self-awareness is what makes the film special. It’s not afraid to call out its source material for its past of unrealistic body standards and problematic history. The nods to 1950s musicals and painted set pieces bring back a level of craftsmanship onscreen we haven’t seen in years. The film takes risks, the main one being a movie about a toy not aimed at children. Overall its weird, but wonderfully so.
However, Barbie doesn’t carry the emotional weight it thinks it does. Late into the film, America Ferrera delivers a beautifully written (if not derivative) speech on the complexities and contradictions of womanhood. Up until that point, we’ve spent very little time with her character, and with no real scenes to back up the speech’s emotionality, it doesn’t pack the desired punch. Margot Robbie, though fully dedicated to her role, fades slightly into the pink background when up against Gosling’s irresistible Kenergy and the film’s feminist ideals.
With so much anticipation and too many clips released in the last three weeks, your mileage may vary on Barbie. But its imperfections culminate into a brilliantly thought-out tribute to an iconic piece of American culture. Gerwig’s vision isn’t just a fun way to embody womanhood but it captures what it’s like to be alive: beautiful and overwhelming.
Barbie is in theaters Friday. Watch the trailer below.