At one point in BARBIE, Greta Gerwig’s pink-plastic jab at the patriarchy, America Ferrara, as Gloria, an ordinary woman, gives an impassioned précis on exactly what women face in the current social climate. It is a clarion call that should reverberate through the ages and one that will, like the film in which it appears, forever change the way we think about the iconic doll. It is nothing short of revolutionary. Then again, as the homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODESSEY that provides the prologue, Barbie as a little girl’s plaything was pretty revolutionary itself.
We open in Barbie Land, where everything is perfect and every day is the best day ever. For the Barbies, that is. That part of population, representing all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities, hold all the positions of power, having their own money, houses, and careers. The Kens, similarly, diverse, only have good days when their Barbies favor them with their gaze. When they have a career at all, it’s nebulous. For stereotypical blonde Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) Ken (Ryan Gosling), that would be stereotypical blonde Ken, is is the job of “beach”. Just beach. It’s enough for him, even though the constant mocking some other Kens make his life less that perfect, even with the occasional gaze from his Barbie. This is a place where the Kens engage in petty bickering, and the Barbies do great things. And when they are recognized for their greatness with awards, they acknowledge that they deserve them,
All is bright, sunny, and perfectly choreographed until Barbie, during girl’s night (and every night is girl’s night) suddenly wonders aloud about death, stunning the party into silence. It gets worse the next day, as her waffles burn, her milk sours, and the morning leap into her convertible results in a splat. When her feet suddenly flatten from their high-heel ready pose, she’s advised by the other Barbies to seek out Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon in the role for which she was put on this planet). She lives on a hill in a Cubist version of the Barbie Dream House, shunned by the other Barbies for being less than perfect. The visit reveals that Barbie’s owner has been playing with her too hard, and that she much cross the membrane into the real world, seek out the little girl with dark thoughts and rough playing skills, and bring the sunshine back to her. If she fails, she’s doomed to a life of existential crisis and rampant cellulite. Thus, with Ken and his rollerblades in tow, Barbie sets off brimming with optimism and the certainty that all the women in the real world will want to give her a hug for bringing equal rights and feminism to them.
Illusions die hard, and so it is with Barbie’s when Sasha, (Ariana Greenblatt) the moody tween she sought out, calls her a fascist of sexualized capitalism, and Ken gets a whiff of the patriarchy. And he likes what he smells.
What ensues is a hellzapoppin story of Mattel’s all-male synchronized executive team, led by a perfectly fatuous Will Ferrell, trying to literally put Barbie back in her box (Ken is superfluous), and Sasha and her mother, Gloria (Ferrara), taking it on the lam back to Barbie Land, where Ken has returned with his new outlook on life.
Gerwig’s satire is both loopy and refined, She takes the broad humor of Barbie’s absolute innocence and juxtaposes it with her intelligence, creating a character that is savvy enough to know that the immediate objectification she receives in the real world is subtly violent, but not able to work out why (perhaps it’s her lack of genitals). Experiencing the real world makes both Ken and Barbie woke, but in radically different ways with oddly logical results. It becomes a battle of the sexes that, from the start, isn’t really a fair fight, but one that makes sharp points about the male-female dynamic without being didactic, eschewing judgement for compassion.
Robbie is the perfect Barbie with a megawatt smile and overpowering perkiness. There is nothing plastic about the performance, which exudes the joy of a happy, if unexamined, life. Yet the intelligence the actor brings to the part makes Barbie’s gradual journey of self-discovery, and the ci-mentioned meaning, delightfully inevitable. It’s why she can use the phrase” cognitive dissonance” when referring to Gloria’s speech about women negotiating modern life, and make it seem natural as well as funny. She understands that fine line between farce and tragedy and uses that understanding with forceful grace. As her manufactured boyfriend, Gosling brings a striking delicacy to the fragility of the male ego as he preens and postures with uncertainty disguised as bravado.
Also good are Michael Cera as Alan, Ken’s discontinued buddy who is the only, and lonely, Allan in Barbie Land, channeling marginalized personhood into interesting and unexpected places; and Rhea Perlman, as Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler. She is perfection as the wise and wise-cracking bubbe of the piece. The showpiece supporting role, though, is McKinnon’s as Weird Barbie, wild-eyed and wild-haired from being played with too hard, she is all crackling energy and quietly manic intensity doing splits and speaking truth while refusing to acknowledge boundaries. She can also throw-off a one-liner with insouciant elegance.
BARBIE is one of the most subversive films of the year, possibly the decade. It’s also one of the most philosophically rich beneath that shiny plastic veneer. Irreverently self-referential, this is a smart, and smartly executed film that makes you long for a simple world while also making the complexities of the real world somehow even more aspirational.
It’s also the smartest move Mattel has made since introducing Barbie in 1959.