The phenomenon of 2023 is Barbie (now streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video), and – review spoiler alert! – it deserves everything it’s achieved. Here’s what happens when capitalist megacorps like Warner Bros. and Mattel hand $130-odd million and free reign over prized intellectual property to an auteur like Greta Gerwig: $1.4 billion in worldwide ticket sales (and counting). The year’s highest-grossing movie (so far). A reinvigoration of the theatrical moviegoing experience (thanks in part to all that Barbenheimer insanity). And if it doesn’t get Oscar consideration, we should revolt (there’s plenty of room in the best picture category, remember). Did we expect this to happen? Maybe – anyone who saw Gerwig’s wonderful Little Women and Lady Bird knew for damn sure she wouldn’t make a glorified toy commercial. And somehow, she and life partner/co-writer Noah Baumbach got away with making a fascinating, trippy and hysterically funny existential-feminist movie about what it means to be human.
BARBIE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Barbie opens with an utterly nuts homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, narrated by Helen Mirren. It shows us little girls smashing baby dolls as Mirren ruminates on the very idea of dollhood itself – its origins, what it symbolizes, how it reflects humanity, stuff like that. (Did we see this coming? No!) Then we get a detailed tour of Barbieland, a pink-soaked plastic meta-reality run by numerous iterations of Barbie: doctor Barbie, president Barbie, astronaut Barbie, etc. It’s a feminist utopia where every night is girl’s night, and the Kens are essentially second-class citizens. Here we meet Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), who, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll just refer to as “Barbie” from here on out. She’s got the Dream House and the pink vintage Corvette and the impeccable wardrobe and the undying attention of Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling), heretofore simply “Ken,” whose happiness depends wholly upon whether Barbie notices him or not. That night Barbie hangs with Ken but pushes him away – he asks to spend the night, even if he’s not sure exactly why; one assumes a lack of genitalia has something to do with that – so she and her female friends can have a heavily choreographed dance party, during which Barbie suddenly, in perhaps the greatest record-scratch fzwoop! moment in cinematic history, blurts out, “You guys ever think about dying?”
What, we’re inevitably thinking, has just entered this plastic woman’s head? She shakes off the existential dread and goes to bed and wakes up and now everything is, well, off. Not quite the same. Not quite right. The perfection of her usual routine is upset – a burnt waffle, the shower shoots water instead of nothing, stuff like that. Then her feet go flat, instead of sculpted for high heels. And what’s this on her thigh? It’s a weird mark. It wasn’t there before. Curious. Our Barbie, it seems, has been cursed with sudden self-awareness, and now she has many questions. She calls upon the wisdom of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who we learn is the Barbie who was “played with too hard,” and now has crayon scribbles on her face, and uneven, chopped-up hair, and is always doing the splits. (I’m giggling just typing this.) Weird Barbie tells our Barbie two things: That mark on her leg is, gasp, cellulite. And in order to repair a sudden rip in space-time that correlates to Barbie’s existential crisis, she must venture out of Barbieland to the real world, and seek out the child who’s playing with her in order to get some answers.
So off Barbie goes, not realizing that Ken is stowing away in the backseat. He really really really wants to tag along, because he’s needy and hilarious and dopey and just wants to spend some time with his dream girl. She sighs and agrees. When they arrive in Los Angeles – well, what would you expect if you journeyed from a perfect utopia to the USA circa 2023? It’d look utterly and completely effed. At first, they’re fascinated, but soon enough, Barbie feels like she’s being stared at with an undercurrent of violence, something that Ken, notably, doesn’t sense. Yes indeed, that’s patriarchy in the air! Barbie soon finds her owner, a sullen tween named Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of Gloria (America Ferrara), a Mattel employee and typically frazzled how-do-I-do-it-all American woman who unwittingly caused the aforementioned space-time fissure when she doodled a design for – get this – Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie. You won’t be surprised to learn that Mattel is run by a boardroom full of men led by a CEO (Will Ferrell) who’s more of a goofy doofus than evil, because this movie can’t piss off the suits too much. Meanwhile, Ken decides that what he has to do is take everything he learned in the real world and sneak off to install the patriarchy in Barbieland, which he does, and now Barbie has a major f—ing problem to deal with.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: I haven’t enjoyed this much plaything-inspired existential philosophy since Forky became self-aware in Toy Story 4. (For more on Barbie, consult your school library! Or watch the Barbie episode of The Toys That Made Us on Netflix.)
Performance Worth Watching: Robbie puts in incredible work, holding all this lunacy together. Ferrara nails the inspiring centerpiece monologue. Gosling’s performance is exquisitely modulated. McKinnon steals the hell out of her scenes. So take your pick.
Memorable Dialogue: Am I hearing it correctly or do the terrifically dimwitted Kens, in their big showstopping musical number, sing the lyric, “My name is Ken, and so am I”?
Sex and Skin: We do not get to see any formless lumps of flesh beneath any of the Barbies’ or Kens’ clothing. Seems like a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
Our Take: Barbie is a mindf—. A mindf— that carries two thoughts in its head at once, specifically, the problematic nature of Barbie dolls representing female perfection, and the groundbreaking women-can-do-anything-they-want empowerment message that the toyline asserted (and exploited for massive profit, another obstacle Gerwig fearlessly tackles). It’s a movie about the brand, sure, but it’s foremost about womanhood and its role in a man’s man’s man’s man’s man’s man’s world, as well as grander ideas about the nature of identity and self, about impermanence and immortality: She is Barbie. She is a woman. She is strong. She is more than human. She is a toy. She is a brand. She is an icon. She is forever.
But this Barbie? She’s suddenly fallible. Burdened by Cartesian thought. Subject to the harshness of reality. Newly aware of the complexities of her existence, which now straddles an idealist playland and good old complicated Planet Earth. Gerwig’s aim isn’t emasculation, as some ninnies proclaim, or even necessarily satire or social criticism. Her goal, I’d assert, was to make a Barbie movie that doesn’t suck. I don’t mean to be glib or reductionist, but the mere notion of a movie based on a popular toyline sucks. And it’s on the studio and producers and writers and director to dig themselves out of that deep conceptual hole, which is typically a grave for good ideas, because god forbid anyone ever consider throwing shade at The Brand, or giving half a sliver of an implication that the toy isn’t something that will make every kid happy forever. Barbie is a marvel of the modern world because somehow, Gerwig managed to talk surely nervous boardroom-dwellers and blue-chip-watchers into letting her take a high-profile commercial product and make art out of it. (The added layer of irony? It made everybody hundreds of millions of dollars.)
And so Gerwig made a Barbie movie that’s funny, stays true to the manner in which young girls play with dolls, and playfully-but-seriously ponders the verisimilitude of modern womanhood. It’s driven by ideas, and, beneath the impeccable art direction and razor-sharp writing and on-point performances (and our gales of laughter), the movie has more going on than most high-concept sci-fi or high-minded Oscar bait. At times, it’s a blindingly bright musical, or a grand farce, or a headtrip, or a delicious skewering of the transcendent awfulness that is Matchbox Twenty, but its pictures and words and subtext always function in awesome lockstep. It’s the rare film that’s as intelligent as it is entertaining.
Our Call: Barbie may be an all-timer. STREAM the living hell out of IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.