Two thoughts kept running through my head as I watched the wonderfully satirical movie BARBIE. First was how full-throttled the lampooning was, not just in making fun of all of the doll’s nomenclature, but also in the film’s parody of sexism, insipid marketing, and the executive class in America. My second thought was how this movie is sooooo not for kids. Despite the fact that Mattel is expecting the film to sell a lot of Barbie merchandise for them, filmmaker Greta Gerwig has created a piece that is wholly adult fare. So much so that its double-entendres, dark comedy, and sex gags push way past the boundaries of kiddie fare. Younger audiences won’t understand the broad skewering of Mattel either. The company is in on the joke, sure, but the savaging borders on self-flagellation. BARBIE may be candy-coated but it’s one barbed entertainment for discriminating adults.
Margot Robbie stars as the popular children’s doll, called “Stereotypical Barbie” here, living her best life in Barbieland. It’s a fantasy world where she and her friends fritter away the days in their dream houses with nary a care. All the Barbies are utterly guileless, played by such varied stars as Emma Mackey, Issa Rae, and Dua Lipa. Robbie’s Barbie starts out her day going through various routines echoing doll play patterns and it’s hilarious. She drinks from an empty coffee cup, takes a pretend shower, and opens a closet that displays her clothes like those famous Barbie outfit boxes. Yet, not long after, Barbie experiences an existential crisis. And it happens at a Barbie dance party, no less.
In the middle of cutting a rug, Barbie nonchalantly asks her party guests, including a host of various Kens, if they’ve ever thought about death. It stops the fun in its tracks, as everyone is stymied by her asking of such heavy questions. The main Ken in the film, played by Ryan Gosling as a vainglorious himbo, worries about her angst because he wants to be her boyfriend. Barbie regards him as little more than a friend or accessory (The same narrative in the actual toy world), and frets further as her feet flatten and no longer fit perfectly into her heels. Lost and desperate, wondering what is happening to her, Barbie turns to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) for answers. That older and wiser doll is an eccentric one, dressed oddly with chopped-off hair, living on the outskirts of town.
Weird Barbie informs Stereotypical Barbie that each of the dolls in Barbieland is connected to a human owner in the real world. (Weird Barbie has her garish look due to her corresponding human going crazy with a makeover.) And the emotional state of each owner informs their Barbie. This leads Robbie’s Barbie to set out on a journey to the real world to figure out what’s going on with her girl.
Barbie travels over land and sea to get to the human world with Ken along for the journey as he’s stowed away. And once they get to the real world of Los Angeles, they’re flabbergasted at what they find. (Incidentally, one of the film’s funniest jokes is that somehow L.A. is considered real to them.) The film then becomes a “fish out of water” story as Barbie and Ken try to figure out how to fit in during their run-ins with the citizenry, the police, and cat-calling construction workers. Gerwig and her co-scripter/real-life partner Noah Baumbach mine all of the culture clashes for big laughs and get extra points for showcasing the similar fakery in both worlds.
Soon enough, Barbie finds her real-world owner Gloria (America Ferrara), who happens to be a stressed-out mother with a sarcastic teen (Ariana Goldblatt) and a doofus of a boss (Will Ferrell) at work. Gloria works at Mattel as the film turns even more meta. Gerwig keeps it all percolating along as she skewers society, apes old movie musical numbers here and there, and takes a big stand for sisterhood. There’s even some surprisingly deep soul-searching in the final act that shows a lot of brains and heart for a film that is so outrageous.
The production values are stunning from the first frame to the last, with the set design, costuming, and cinematography all working in tandem to create a gleaming, stylized fantasia. The performances all play at the proper pitch – no mean feat – with Gosling getting a lot of laughs, not to mention McKinnon and Michael Cera doing like-wise in support. The film goes on a bit too long, but the energy always remains high, and the funny lines keep coming fast and furious. Robbie carries it all with aplomb and makes her tricky role recognizably human. Her Barbie is smart, courageous, and sweetly sexy too – a surprisingly three-dimensional heroine.
Like the main characters in Gerwig’s previous directorial efforts LADY BIRD and LITTLE WOMEN, Barbie turns out to be a strong, plucky lead, one shrewdly confident, and even ballsy in all she does. And that’s saying quite a lot here, considering Barbie isn’t exactly anatomically correct.