Movie Reviews

‘Barbie’ is one of the weirdest blockbusters in recent memory

Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" is both a brand extension and a pink-tinged, anti-capitalist screed.

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in "Barbie."
Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in "Barbie." Warner Bros. Pictures

About midway through “Barbie,” a group of all-male Mattel executives led by Will Ferrell politely but firmly ask Barbie (Margot Robbie) to get in her box. It’s nice in the box, they tell her. Everything will be perfect once you get in there.

Just when Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie (that’s her character’s actual name, not a value judgment) is about to be permanently imprisoned behind four pink walls and a clear layer of plastic, she breaks free. Much like its main character, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” refuses to be confined and defined. It’s a Mattel brand extension and an anti-capitalist screed. It’s an uplifting comedy and a sobering meditation on the agony of existence. More than anything, “Barbie” is one of the most subversive, unexpected summer blockbusters in recent memory.

Watch our review of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”

After a short narration from Helen Mirren and a “2001: A Space Odyssey” homage shown in the movie’s first teaser trailer, “Barbie” introduces us to Barbieland, a triumph of set design that mimics the most iconic (and expensive) playsets Mattel has ever sold. 


Barbieland is home to every type of Barbie a kid could dream of. There’s President Barbie, Journalist Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbie, and Writer Barbie, to name a few. Less defined are an army of Kens, whose entire existence, Mirren’s narration intones, revolves around Barbie noticing them. Ryan Gosling’s Ken technically has the job of “Beach” — not lifeguard, not surfer, just Beach.

That’s the way Barbieland works, and no one questions the natural order — that is, until Robbie’s Barbie begins to change. She can’t stop thinking about death, the arches of her feet suddenly go flat, and she develops a single patch of (gasp!) cellulite on her thigh.

After consulting with the keeper of secrets, a “Weird Barbie” that was played with a bit too roughly by her owner (Kate McKinnon, sporting a haircut only a 5-year-old with scissors could create), Barbie heads to the real world, determined to connect with the little girl who is imprinting all of her fears and insecurities on her doll.

Margot Robbie in "Barbie."
Margot Robbie in “Barbie.” – Warner Bros. Pictures

Gerwig, who was born in 1983, uses the arrival of Barbie in real-world L.A. as an opportunity to interrogate the legacy of third-wave feminism, which rose to prominence in the ‘90s and focused (in part) on women’s individualism following the monumental gains of women’s rights in preceding decades. The repeated appearance of Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” also anchors the film firmly in that time period, if only in spirit.


Barbieland’s “girls run the world” ethos have not had the transformative impact Robbie’s Barbie expected. She’s confused when a gaggle of construction workers features no women (and a lot of catcalls). When she heads to a local middle school in search of the young girl in her visions, she is shocked to find that Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) considers Barbie a “fascist” and an avatar for the worst of modern capitalism.

Margot Robbie in "Barbie."
Margot Robbie in “Barbie.” – Warner Bros. Pictures

And when Barbie confusedly asks the Mattel board where the “woman president” is, Ferrell tells her he “resents the implication” of her question, before touting the two previous women presidents the company has had in its 78-year history. As one anonymous businessman tells Ken (who stowed away in Barbie’s car), men still run the world — “we just hide it better now.”

Robbie, previously brilliant in 2017’s “I, Tonya,” perfectly embodies the impossible standard that Barbie — and many women — strive to achieve. Sasha’s mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), a Mattel designer edging toward midlife crisis, lays out the contradictions in a stirring speech that heralds the film’s third act: Women must be beautiful, but not too beautiful, lest they be accused of being enticing. Women must desire to be thin, but can only say they want to be “healthy.” They can never be rude. They can be tough and career-driven, but must consider the feelings of the men around them when doing so.


Speaking of the men around them, Gosling is fantastic as Ken, bringing some of the twitchy energy he channeled in 2016’s “The Nice Guys.” He’s been insecure way longer than Barbie has, and the real world teaches him some extremely toxic ways to process his feelings, enumerated in a bravura musical number that will be stuck in your head for days.

Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ryan Gosling and Ncuti Gatwa in "Barbie."
Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ryan Gosling and Ncuti Gatwa in “Barbie.” – Warner Bros. Pictures

If Gerwig accepted a single studio note from Warner Bros. or Mattel, you certainly can’t tell. Much like her 2019 version of “Little Women,” the filmmaker has taken a cultural touchstone of many young girls’ lives and created something entirely new and distinctly her own. 

That said, Gerwig’s bold directorial choices don’t always work. Certain characters, especially Sasha, feel underwritten, which is unfortunate given that she represents a generation (and point of view) the movie is ostensibly trying to reach. The film’s script, co-written by Gerwig’s longtime partner, writer-director Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha”), occasionally ditches coherent plotting in favor of philosophical treatises that drag rather than inspire. But even those missteps are ambitious ones, and at a moment when studios are allergic to risk, “Barbie” is a fearless foray into the bright pink abyss.   

Rating: *** (out of 4)

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