Margot Robbie shines in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, even if the movie comes perilously close to being stolen by Ryan Gosling’s Ken.
PLOT: Things aren’t going great for Barbie (Margot Robbie). While life in Barbie Land seems perfect, Barbie can’t stop thinking about her own mortality. When her arches drop and GASP, she develops cellulite, her only hope to regain her pitch-perfect Barbie life is to travel to the real world. She’s followed by the love-lorn Ken (Ryan Gosling) who develops an existential crisis of his own.
REVIEW: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has, perhaps unexpectedly, become the water-cooler movie of the summer even before it opens. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it, and the box office projections have gone through the roof, with forecasters expecting it to be a smash. Indeed, having finally seen the film for myself, I can confidently say that Gerwig has made Barbie into a quietly provocative but still family-friendly and fun movie. Is it the masterpiece some thought (or hoped) it would be? Nope. But Barbie works much more often than it doesn’t and has some huge belly laughs (as well as an affectionate shot at a director that now has a contentious relationship with WB).
The best thing about the movie is Barbie Land. Gerwig and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach use the conceit that it exists through a kind of time fissure. The people in Barbie Land are all toys that children play with, and they have a bond with their owners that affects them in Barbie Land. If an owner decides to smash up a Barbie, it becomes like Kate McKinnon’s “Weird Barbie,” and if a model is discontinued, they live out their days forgotten about on the outskirts of town.
In the movie, Margot Robbie’s playing a character called “Stereotypical” Barbie, in that she’s the classic blonde, gorgeous model most associated with the brand. Just like how Mattel’s made tons of variations on Barbie, these all exist in Barbie Land, with Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp and more all playing Barbies. The same goes for Ken, with Ryan Gosling the classic “Beach” Ken, while Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Ncuti Gatwa are also all Ken. Barbies rule the land, while all the Kens only exist to worship them.
What makes Gerwig’s movie interesting is how, while fun, Barbie Land is presented as a bit of a cruel place, with any discontinued Barbie or mangled Barbie not having a place in society. The same thing goes for all the Kens, who have no agency or purpose in life.
When Margot Robbie’s Barbie suffers a crisis because her human owner is depressed, she travels into the real world to maintain her position as the stereotypical Barbie everyone loves, only for Ken to follow and have his mind blown by a society where men seem to be in control.
As far as the plot goes, I’m going to stop there, as the joy of the film is discovering just how far Gerwig takes the premise. Suffice it to say she’s made a very smart Barbie movie with much to say about society and our roles in it. Many assume this will be a “men = bad, women = good” movie, but that’s not true. If anything, the film is about individualism and how we all have to allow ourselves to be more than what the world has made us into, regardless of gender. This is true for Barbie, and it’s true for Ken too. It certainly satirizes patriarchy, but it the Barbie Land matriarchy doesn’t get off easily either if you look under the surface and some of the (too) on the nose speechifying that clogs up the third act.
Margot Robbie is ideally cast for a number of reasons, the most obvious being – well – she looks exactly like a real-life version of Barbie, with even Helen Mirren’s narrator remarking on how gorgeous the actress is. Yet, Robbie can also evoke vulnerability and even pathos while never abandoning the “fun” aspect of the role.
However, it’s ironic that in a movie called Barbie, everyone, inevitably, is going to walk out of this raving about Ken. Ryan Gosling gets one of the best roles of his career here. If the Academy ever wises up and embraces comedy, he’s a lock for a best supporting actor nod. He’s hilarious, showing off a killer comic sensibility while never losing sight of Ken’s sweet side, even if, for a while anyway, he becomes a bit of an antagonist. He also gets a jaw-dropping musical number/ dance sequence towards the end of the film, which is one of the most dazzling cinematic sequences in recent memory (which WB almost ruined when they released part of it as a promo-clip called “Just Ken”). Gosling’s at his best when Ken becomes ultra-macho in the middle part of the film, modelling himself after a 1980’s glamor shot he saw of Sylvester Stallone.
Robbie and Gosling are ably supported by an ace supporting cast, with Simu Liu the standout of the other Ken’s, being the cool, acrobatic one, while Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie is a scene-stealer. America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt are the humans Barbie connects with, and they ground the film emotionally, even if they’re unnecessary. The movie is at its best when the Barbie’s who lead converse with the ignored or discontinued characters, such as Michael Cera’s Allan, a short-lived best friend for Ken who never really sold.
Here’s the thing – when Barbie gets to the real world, the movie suddenly becomes less interesting. There are a lot of winks and nods towards consumerism, Mattel, and how much of a fish out of water Barbie is, but it’s been done. When they’re in Barbie Land, the movie is magical, but too much time is spent in “reality,” with one of the weirder aspects being that Will Ferrell plays the human CEO “villain,” almost the exact same part he played in The Lego Movie.
In the end, Barbie feels like 70% Greta Gerwig’s pink fantasia, Barbie-infused fever dream (that’s the good part), with the other 30% is just another variation on a formula that’s been done to death (the fish out of water comedy). There’s enough genius in here to make Barbie an easy recommendation, but if they make more Barbie movies, and they certainly will, there’s no need ever to leave Barbie Land.