Barbie movie review

Barbie is simultaneously subversive and corporate, fluffy and delightfully weird

4 out of 5 stars

Barbie, improbably, opens with an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Serving as a quick history lesson on dolls in the 20th century, we watch as young girls play with babies. They cradle and dote over their little toys until an enormous Barbie doll descends from the sky like the black monolith descending upon the apes. Margot Robbie’s lithe physique looks down on the girls like a goddess, ushering in a new era of play, discovery and opportunity. The narrator, Helen Mirren’s voice, talks us through all the unfulfilled promises of the first and second-wave feminists. The Barbie dolls living in Barbieland believe in their hearts that in the real world, women have achieved equality.

In the absurdist pink-toned Barbieland, Barbies have achieved their every dream. They’re stylish, successful and absolutely fulfilled. The Kens of the world are subservient, experts in “Beach” and fawning over their smooth, smiling girlfriends. As we are introduced to Robbie, who plays “Stereotypical Barbie,” all seems right in the world. She lives in her Dreamhouse, her days are packed with rewarding activities and every night is Girl’s Night. The problem is, Barbie keeps thinking about death; her feet are suddenly flat and she even has a growing patch of cellulite. 

Gerwig co-wrote (with partner Noah Baumbach) and directed Barbie, the year’s most unexpected existential dramedy. Pink and plastic, the world brims with strange and specific details that evoke universal feelings of nostalgia for anyone who played with or yearned for Barbie dolls. The film delves into the doll’s paradoxical appeal: the woman who could do anything but who also came to represent impossible physical and even ideological ideals. In this film, Barbie is both liberator and oppressor, a set of impossible contradictions wrapped in plastic. 

At first glance, Barbie echoes films like Toy Story 2 and The Lego Movie, as it explores what it means to grow up and cast your toys aside. In a rather clever and bewildering twist, though, the film yearns less for childhood as much as it picks at the existential anxieties of adulthood. What happens when it seems like you’ll never achieve your dreams? How do we cope with our children growing up? How do we balance career and relationship? Why do we feel so empty?

Barbie review
Margot Robbie in Barbie

Barbie’s frost-tipped companion, Ken (Ryan Gosling, balancing the tragi-comedy of the role with a sensitive but outlandish touch), joins Barbie on her trip to the real world. As Barbie faces the reality that women are still mostly treated as second-class citizens, Ken realizes that, unlike the Woman Supremacy of Barbieland, on Earth, patriarchy rules. Inspired by this newfound discovery, Ken takes his horrifying realization back home and quickly erodes the empowered Barbie masses into a crowd of grinning trad-wife idiots. In a film with several incredible needle drops, perhaps the best was using Crazytown’s “Butterfly” as the ultimate bro theme song. Though much has been made of the film foregrounding the dreams and desires of women, the movie quite surprisingly offers a similarly sympathetic view of the anxieties of men, who feel rudderless and insignificant. And the film comes very close (without ever directly engaging with the idea) that the very nature of our corporate society has left us all aimless and alienated. 

Wading into the online cultural wars rarely seems worthwhile, but ignoring the battle brewing around Barbie is difficult. Is Barbie a subversive masterpiece? Is Gerwig a sellout? Does the movie hate men and mothers? Is Margot Robbie mid? Though deliriously entertaining and weird for a major Blockbuster event, it seems ridiculous to even entertain the idea that the film deserves to be compared to movies by filmmakers like Jacques Tati or Demy, who helped inspire Gerwig’s approach to the material. The movie is still a corporate product that achieves fleeting moments of beauty despite everything. Though far more ambitious and liberated than your average Marvel film, it seems indecent to pretend it’s more than a well-made and well-intentioned Studio product. 

And that brings us to Gerwig. I don’t believe she sold out because Barbie feels very much in line with her previous two features, Ladybird and Little Women. They may have had smaller budgets and told stories that were more grounded in reality, but despite their status as indie darlings, they are fundamentally well-made dramedies that, half a century ago (or before), would be above average studio fare. It’s not that they don’t contain beauty or poetry, but they also lack a particular aesthetic ambition and sensitivity. Gerwig excels, above all else, as a writer who touches the hearts and minds of millennial liberal women. It seems absurd to expect anything more from her. It seems equally ridiculous to hitch a set of unachievable and inaccurate superlatives to her work. She won’t be able to live up to them.

With all that said, Barbie is a good time at the movies. The nearly two-hour runtime flies by and is jam-packed with incredible set pieces and endless imagination. Both Gosling and Robbie give heartfelt and nuanced performances that achieve the perfect balance between comedy and drama. In classical form, they showcase the power of movie stars to command the big screen and move the audience with a glance or a tear. Barbie can’t live up to the impossible expectations some people hold it to, but it’s good for what it is. ■

Barbie (directed by Greta Gerwig)

Barbie opened in Montreal theatres on July 21, and is streaming now in Canada on VOD.

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