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REVIEW – “Barbie”: No Longer Wrapped in Plastic, Robbie is Fantastic

You might’ve grown up with the dolls, maybe you didn’t. You probably caught wind of the endless ad campaigns, the different job types, accessories, add-ons, and self-aware animated gags that blew up online, and maybe you didn’t. Not all of us have held a Barbie doll, many of us were OK with merely keeping her in the cardboard box, not allowing that sense of imagination to run fast, wild, and without a tether. Writer/director Greta Gerwig (Little Women) makes it instantly clear that her version of Barbie aligns fully with a highly active imagination, bending the limits of active play. Perhaps to the point of oddball, absurdist acid trip territory, done with careful respect for the IP, and an eye for absolute subversion, in every way imaginable. And my, it is glorious. Even essential. 

It’s truly Barbie’s world, we’re all just taking a tour of it. The realm of Barbieland is like a utopian society, as narrator Helen Mirren will emphasize with tongue-in-cheek spryness. Pastel pink with neon flourishes, plasticine decoration and an obliquely optimistic sense of being. Nothing like the adjacent “real world” where those imaginative minds who play with the physical dolls foster grand stories, adventures, even sellable ideas for the wide marketplace. One of those would not be a “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie), who amid the optimal summer weather, displays of machismo, and flawless dance choreography, periodically questions her existence or purpose in life. She’s aware there might be more to life than wiling away at the beach, hanging at the club, being a minimal cause for social activism, and dating a typical Ken (Ryan Gosling), the usual boneheaded masculine icon. 

That all comes to a head one fateful afternoon, when Barbie’s pointy feet go flat. A mild defect that leads to a grand quest spurred by the inquisitive Weird Barbie (a delightful Kate McKinnon). She must go to the “real world,” aka Los Angeles and search for whoever’s playing with her, giving her these existential ideas and concepts. Ken tags along for no apparent reason, only to discover PR-positive examples of patriarchy, crafting the very definition in his simple mind on the fly, not realizing the chaos it may cause back home.  

Meanwhile, Barbie soon crosses paths with her targets, middle-schooler Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a complicated modern-day feminist; and working mom Gloria (America Ferrera), secretary to Mattel’s CEO (Will Ferrell). Sasha hates everything Barbie stands for, even labeling her a fascist sight unseen. Gloria looks to make up for lost time with her kid, doodling variations of the doll in her spare time. And the CEO, a standard male authority figure with a silly inferiority complex – comfortably in Ferrell’s safe zone – looks to put his highest sales point back in the box. A quiet extraction taking her out of both harm’s way, and the FBI’s line of questioning. 

Would it be an understatement that Gerwig, and regular writing partner Noah Baumbach were throwing the kitchen sink to a brick wall, a million ideas tossed in to see what sticks? I’d say no, they’re throwing way more across two hours to see what sticks. Just about everything does, a broad picture, painted in real time, that pokes many holes at mass marketing, breakdown of gender roles, basic misogyny, societal norms, classic Americana, the dark side of nostalgia, and in the case of Gloria, parental doubt. The list goes on and Gerwig misses nothing, not just to empower, not always to probe, but to have endless fun deconstructing and challenging its points of focus, before looking to calm those worried minds in the audience, wondering about the value of purpose. 

That is a messy road, per Gerwig’s intent. Real life can be like that, but blending that with her shameless knack for fantasy, let alone a satirical sort, at least makes it tidy and lively. Stepping into that pink-intensive playset is like a beautiful nightmare, and I’m sure LA is as well, but for fair reasons. The work of Sarah Greenwood (Cyrano) on production design, Jacqueline Durran (The Batman) on costumes, and Rodrigo Pietro (The Glorias) behind the camera makes sure there’s no substantial disconnect. Both realms can co-exist in a maddening blur, pulling unashamed parallels or nods to 2001, Wizard of Oz, The Lego Movie (blame Ferrell for that one), and to a smaller extent, Don’t Worry Darling. Those desert bluffs reminding one of Palm Springs or the Las Vegas suburbs are oddly universal. 

The same goes for Gerwig’s approach to feminism, truthful and besmirched. Life in the dreamhouse is only for show, it’s never meant to be an accurate mirror. But for Gerwig to confidently pinpoint the disparity within, and the anarchic scorn, clashing with the constant need for flawlessness and supremacy, takes unwavering bravery. Society demands perfection on multiple occasions; to think that would also apply to simple playtime should be unfathomable. But the revelation’s priceless, save for maybe a few zingers at characters’ expense.

The Barbies won’t waste a chance to rib, particularly after they’ve been dunked on. And their group need not be phased in their pursuits. Be it Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), President Barbie (Issa Rae), Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey) or a few different Mermaid Barbies (Dua Lipa). Their game is diplomacy; the Kens’ is more cartoon violence. A playful ensemble melee that may put Grown Ups 2 to shame – it took only 10 years to dethrone the champion. Complete with the lead Ken breaking into an Oscar-worthy musical number, and strains of interpretive dance alongside third-in-command Ken (a glowing Simu Liu), and the mutinous Allan (a stunning Michael Cera). Just one example of a killer soundtrack curated by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, highlights of which include splashes of a discordant Spice Girls, a liberating Indigo Girls, and a theatrical Lizzo. 

Gosling wastes no chance to steal the show and drops every jaw in the room. He might be slightly evil, but it’s a lovable evil, aloof yet emotive. As one would expect, his Ken completely rewrites the playbook for that bromidic bro friend we all like to dislike. More than a simpleton, now a headstrong, unguarded sidekick. Still, it’s Robbie who owns this film, in easily her best performance since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Her tenacity, comic timing and emotional range help immortalize the Barbie character into the next generation, complex and unpredictable. With firm credence and calming empathy, she gives 110% to a flaw-friendly portrayal, speaking to those still working toward their aspirations. Ferrera might be the film’s worst kept secret, however, often sweeping the rug with an unsurpassed honesty all her own.  

Gerwig preaches to a wayward choir covering all her bases here. The results left me in disbelief as the credits unspooled. No way could a film this topical, this unapologetic be this spectacular, and full of life. Barbie celebrates life by proving why the bigger questions should be answered, how traditional life roles can still be open to adaptation. Best not waste it, might as well live it to your best, to your most balanced, leaving time to ponder why it’s worth living. Gerwig finds answers to all of them and allows the space to just riff to her heart’s content, maintaining a steady hand on the wheel despite the content saying otherwise. I’m not ashamed to say what we have here is one of the year’s best films, without trouble. Experience, passion, performance, style, and satire all converging to create what many will have preemptively dubbed as cinema. To some unique degree, that is true, and it is worth more than a first glance. (A-; 4/5) 

Barbie opens in theaters July 21, previews begin 3PM July 20; rated PG-13 for suggestive references and brief language; 114 minutes.