Review By Andy Ray
In Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” all manner of Barbie dolls live together in Barbieland, where each doll functions according to its intended theme. Barbieland is populated with Dentist Barbie, Veterinarian Barbie, and so forth. Barbies rule Barbieland. A Barbie functions as president, and Barbies comprise the Supreme Court. Heck, even the trash collectors are Barbies.
Ken dolls also populate Barbieland, but their only function is to provide the occasional male companion to the ruling Barbies. Kens are there for beach parties and dances, but they don’t have any kind of relationships with the Barbie dolls. It’s an interesting premise, from an original screenplay by Gerwig and her frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach (who most recently directed “Marriage Story” in 2019). Margot Robbie plays “stereotypical” Barbie. She’s not a specific Barbie (such as Dentist Barbie), but just your standard Barbie doll. She serves as our guide to this strange and wonderfully pink world.
But one can’t help but wonder what to make of this fictional universe. Yes, it’s certainly great to see women in charge, but (save for President of the United States) women already function in these positions. We already have female Supreme Court justices, female doctors, female vets, and yes, even female garbage collectors. What’s the big deal?
Aah, but then Stereotypical Barbie – and the primary Ken doll, played by Ryan Gosling – venture into the “real world” to find the little girl playing with her to, for want of a better term, get her mojo back. It’s a complicated story and the details don’t matter here, but suffice to say Kate McKinnon has a fantastic cameo as “Weird Barbie,” who sets Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie on this journey.
It is here (in the real world) that Barbie realizes men still rule. Not only do men occupy almost all positions of power (including the entire Board of Directors of Mattel, Barbie’s parent company), but men hoot and holler at beautiful women as though they are objects of desire as opposed to equals with brains. Of course, we know this to be true, but Barbie doesn’t. Shocked that the real world has some catching up to do, Stereotypical Barbie breaks down and cries for the first time in her life.
Meantime, Ken has the opposite experience. Invigorated by an alternative universe in which men rule over women, he gladly returns to Barbieland, brainwashes all the Barbies (again, it’s complicated), and turns it into Kendom – a world in which men (i.e. the Ken dolls) are in charge, and women (the Barbies) exist merely to hand the men their next beers while partying at the beach. These newly “relaxed” Barbies are only too happy to listen to men talk all the way through movies, and eagerly ask men to show them how to play every sport known to mankind. It’s a male dreamworld, and when Stereotypical Barbie returns, she is appalled.
Fortunately, Stereotypical Barbie brings two new “real world” friends with her – the girl who played with her, and her “average” working-class mother, played by America Ferrera, in the film’s most interesting and fully developed role. The point of Ferrera’s character is to accentuate the fact that most women are simply “normal” people trying to juggle work, family, and other commitments – not specialized professionals like the Barbies who formerly populated Barbieland. Of course, we know this; but again, Barbie does not.
“Barbie” is certainly an interesting premise, and cartoonish as it may be (after all this is a film about a doll), it hits deeper than we expect. And yes, Barbie is an iconic doll, but the picture almost doesn’t deserve to be this good. Fortunately, everyone plays the material straight, save for Will Ferrell, who almost ruins what borders on an excellent movie by playing his hand too comically. His mugging grates on the nerves, in a film in which the America Ferrera character is showing us that any woman has the potential to change the world.
Two side points on Gerwig’s “Barbie.” First, the opening sequence is the best satirization of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” I’ve ever seen. Helen Mirren’s voice-over narration explains that prior to Barbie dolls, little girls played only with baby dolls – relegating their playtime role to nothing more than “mother.” Then one day, a large Barbie doll appears on the barren landscape. The girls touch the large doll’s legs with a sense of awe and wonder, as an orchestra plays Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. The girls then use the bones of dead animals to smash their baby dolls to bits. This is a funny and inventive intro, which immediately sets the tone that “Barbie” will be something more than we expect. Unfortunately, “2001” is now 55 years old, and many viewers won’t make the connection.
My other offhand observation has to do with the ending. When Stereotypical Barbie makes the decision to try her hand at living in the real world, she dresses in professional attire and enters a large office building. When the receptionist asks how she can help, we expect Stereotypical Barbie to say she’s here for a job interview. Instead, she utters a line so insipid as to almost ruin the entire movie. Yes, Barbie and Ken had previously noted that they are not anatomically correct – not that we would expect that of any doll – but to fall back on such a minor aspect of the Barbie doll during the film’s final scene is a limp and ineffective way to conclude these proceedings. Barbie’s final line should have been weightier.
Now “Barbie” can’t possibly compare to director Gerwig’s other films – the excellent mother-daughter comedy “Lady Bird,” and the top-notch re-working of “Little Women.” But given the source material (and the lead character’s pathetic final utterance), I venture to say this film is far better than expected. I can’t say this year’s best picture will be one about a doll, but “Barbie” is very, very good.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures