The legendary screenwriter William Goldman wrote that, “Nobody knows anything.” He meant that common sense, as it is understood by us, doesn’t exist and can’t exist in the film industry. A film that should be a massive hit, such as John Carter or the dearly departed The Flash, isn’t. A film that flies under the radar, such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The Blair Witch Project, suddenly goes supernova and makes all the money.
If you work in an industry where success can’t be predicted and failure means the loss of your job, you’re probably going to get scared. Once you get scared, you’re probably not going to take chances. You’ll look at films that are successful and simply do the same things. That fear leads to creative stagnation.*
That, right there, is why I love it when filmmakers take chances. In an environment drenched in fear, first someone has to agree to a strong screenplay. Then a studio needs to agree to finance it, come what may. Then actors need to sign on and resist the temptation to meddle with the production for their own selfish reasons. Then? Cross fingers and toes that the film doesn’t bomb. That’s what Greta Gerwig and her team did, and despite its flaws, that’s what makes Barbie so special.
A Narrator (Helen Mirren) introduces us to Barbieland, a place where the Barbies are in charge. President Barbie (Issa Rae) is in her fifth term. Barbies run the Supreme Court. Barbies build skyscrapers. Barbies have elaborately choreographed dance parties. Everything is awesome in Barbieland yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
That’s the world that Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in. She wakes up in her DreamHouse (which has no front walls), showers (without water), has breakfast (without ingesting anything), floats to the street (no stairs), and drives (no engine) to the beach. Ken (Ryan Gosling) is there. His job is beach. That’s what he does. What he wants is a little of Barbie’s time. She’s not super interested because a) he’s dumb as toast and b) she’s busy hanging with the other Barbies.
Then, at a slumber party/dance party, it happens. Barbie casually asks, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Just like when I say that to my friends, the other Barbies immediately melt down. Barbie begins to notice her feet going flat, cellulite appearing, and a mysterious sense of malaise afflicting her. The only one who understands is Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who gives Barbie a quest. Barbie must journey to the Real World (not the TV show) and discover the person playing with her.
So off she goes, and it won’t be easy for Barbie. That’s because, you might be surprised to learn, the Real World kind of sucks. Along with rampant sexism, the concept of Barbie is hopelessly outdated. Plus, Ken decides to tag along. He sees a world where men are in charge with their brewski beers, power ballads, and love of horses. Now, Barbie is on her own, with only a stressed Mattel employee (America Ferrera) and her surly daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) to help her.
So much pink paint was used in the production of Barbie that it briefly caused a global shortage. That’s just one example of director Greta Gerwig’s commitment to not only making a good Barbie movie, but also a movie that interrogates the difficulty of being a woman in the twenty-first century. From a purely technical perspective, Gerwig has, unsurprisingly, delivered an excellent film. We have practical sets – practical sets! – that are precise and life-sized replicas of Barbie playsets. We have elaborate and gleefully ridiculous musical numbers. We have moments that luxuriate in childhood nostalgia, then light the nostalgia on fire. Gerwig’s film is colorful, fun, and with one exception, moves along at a zippy pace, but we’ll get to that a little later.
Gerwig’s ambition doesn’t stop at the direction. Co-written with Noah Baumbach, the screenplay does two things in particular very well. The first is a sense of humor that’s silly without being stupid or condescending. There are a dizzying array of jokes skewering the ubiquity of the Barbie brand, corporate machinations, and Ken’s relentless misunderstanding of the patriarchy.** I laughed all the way through the film, but at no point does it mock the concept of Barbie or the people who harbor warm feelings toward her. The second aspect of the script is that it deeply interrogates the difficulty women face while also noting that women can be whatever they put their mind toward. A lesser film would have stuck with a “rah-rah girl power” message. This script is smarter than that.
That ambition, ironically, creates a few of the stumbling blocks the film faces. A ways into Barbie, America Ferrera gives a heartfelt monologue about the microscopically fine line that women are expected to walk. I admired her performance and agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Unfortunately, the monologue brings the entire film to a screeching halt, and it takes a few minutes for it to regain its momentum. The other issue is a subplot swallowed up by all the other ideas. Early on, we see that the Kens are nothing more than appendages to the Barbies, then we see the Kens take over Barbieland and nearly run it into the ground. So far, that all tracks. Yet after Barbie experiences rampaging gender inequality in the real world and the Barbies re-establish control of Barbieland, the solution isn’t, “Both genders need to do better supporting each other.” The solution is, “Ken, you need to figure out your purpose. Just…not here.” It’s an unsatisfying conclusion to the subplot, and I suspect the reason is that so many other ideas were jostling for space that something had to be pruned.
The entire cast is dialed into the specific frequency needed to make this project work. I’ll grant you, Will Ferrell as the CEO of Mattel is sort of the same role he played in The LEGO Movie.*** As a Mattel employee and possibly the real protagonist. America Ferrera’s Gloria is grounded without being a bore next to the zanier characters. It’s a quietly subtle performance, and one of the few instances where subtlety is needed. Subtlety goes out the window in the best ways with Simu Liu’s Tourist Ken, Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Basketball Ken, Issa Rae’s President Barbie, and the somewhat underused Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie. Subtlety is lit on fire and thrown into a minefield with Ryan Gosling’s Ken. His character is, broadly put, an utter meathead, and it’s a joy to see him transition from Barbie’s somewhat boyfriend to a swaggering dipstick. Gosling is a strong dramatic actor. As a comic actor, he’s literally one of the greats, and that’s proved alone by his ridiculous power ballad/dance number “I’m Just Ken.” If there’s any justice in this cold, cruel world, Ryan Gosling’s management team will forbid him from doing dramas for at least five years.
None of this works without Margot Robbie. Her Barbie sets the tone with a bubbly optimism, as she snaps off a crisp salute to two female astronauts and says, “Yay, space!” As Barbie begins to experience deeper emotions and as she enters the Real World, Robbie transforms a two-dimensional doll into a fully three-dimensional character. Whether she’s in the grip of an existential crisis, shedding a tear at just the right moment, or dealing with the insanity of the Kens, Robbie is fully invested and never winking at the audience. Could other actors have played Barbie? Sure. Very few of them could play the role this well.
The good news is that Barbie is an excellent film and is possibly the cinematic event of the summer. In leading their team, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig have made a smart and sunny blockbuster with something to say. The bad news? I understand that Mattel now has numerous projects lined up to be adapted. They’ll likely learn the wrong lesson from Barbie and, in a few years, I’ll have to seriously reckon with a Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots movie. If so, I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.
*That’s why I don’t think superhero fatigue actually exists. The problem isn’t that audiences are tired of capes, they just want stories about them that are creative and original, yet they’re fed movies similar to what has come before.
**Big surprise that a number of commenters, mostly male and conservative, have accused Barbie of being anti-male. Also a big surprise that they misunderstood the film. There’s a certain kind of man who’s content to be shallow, who’s proudly dumb, who lives a life free of self-reflection and leaves exasperated sighs in his wake. Those are dudes, and it’s important to understand that Barbie is not mocking men. It’s relentlessly mocking dudes.
***Barbie shares the anarchistic anti-corporate DNA of The LEGO Movie. Parents, teach your kids while they’re young to smash capitalism!