“Women… They have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts,” said Saoirse Ronan’s Jo March in Greta Gerwig’s dazzling Louisa May Alcott adaptation. “And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it!”
Who knows if writer-director Gerwig was already thinking of making a Barbie doll movie someday when she plucked the above quote out of Alcott’s novel, “Rose in Bloom,” and ingeniously plugged it into her inventive take on “Little Women,” concluding it with the punchline, “But I’m so lonely.”
Still, it’s pretty safe to assume she’s been carrying these words around with her when working on her disarming, astute and altogether bitingly brilliant “Barbie,” a thoughtful and uproarious film whose marketing has been so loud and ceaseless that the skeptics who’ve been turned off by all the hoopla might be surprised to find a soulful film underneath all the persistent fuchsia they’ve been served out of context. One that has heart and ambition as well as abundant beauty, inside and out.
Then again, they shouldn’t be surprised, should they? Not at this point, when Gerwig—once a staple of indie mumblecore and, for quite some time, the major writer-director of numerous sharp and confidently feminine pictures—has delivered something shrewd, unexpected and expressive with every single one of her outings in the last decade.
Her motto has always been to rethink things: the high school movie, a classic novel we thought we knew so well, all the narratives about young women in search of their voice and so on. From the Noah Baumbach-directed “Frances Ha” (which Gerwig didn’t direct but co-wrote with Baumbach) to the Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird,” Gerwig’s filmography managed to freshen up all of these familiar packages in ways both inviting and timeless.
Starring a luminous and gradually heartbreaking Margot Robbie as an original stereotypical Barbie and Ryan Gosling (a shattering physical comedy genius between this and “The Nice Guys”) as Barbie’s casual fling Ken, “Barbie” is no different in regard to those previous features. Once an equal parts fascinating and controversial Mattel toy, both loved and hated—a tiny-waisted, vacuously smiling, slender doll designed like a straight-male fantasy—is now the complicated feminist symbol of empowerment in Gerwig’s hands. But we aren’t talking about an empty you-go-girl kind of empowerment here. That would be too simple-minded for Gerwig, whose articulate and accessible feminism has always been fiercely multifaceted and complex.
For evidence, just look at her jumping off point for “Barbie” (also co-written by Baumbach), a premise authoritatively narrated by Helen Mirren via an early nod to Kubrick and founded on the very conundrum of femininity and womanhood. Gerwig’s “Barbie” reminds us that despite the doll’s unrealistic beauty standards and grossly dust-pink world, the very idea of this stereotypical pretty blonde figurine (which, thankfully, became more inclusive of different races and body types later on) was a woman who had it all.
Before Barbies came along with their dream houses, sports cars and chic wardrobes, little girls only played with baby dolls in their pretend-games, we are told. They had no choice but to be mothers and caregivers. But the Barbie doll changed all this: the “girly” pretend games could now include stylish soirees, luxurious self-care bubble baths and big, empowering leadership roles in medicine, law, government, astronomy and so on.
In other words, in their safe and peaceful perfect world where Ken dolls were nothing but afterthought boy-toys, the Barbies were like the enviable women of “Sex and The City,” sans genitals (a hilarious fact Gerwig never lets you forget). They had hearts, souls, ambition, talent and beauty. They were anything but lonely, and love was hardly all they were fit for.
Guided by Rodrigo Prieto’s shiny lens—both appealing and knowingly stark—we meet the Barbies as they flaunt their classically luscious (and sometimes, knowingly ridiculous) costumes, designed by the legendary Jaqueline Durran, inside the delectably imagined sets of production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer. Firmly believing that they’ve fixed all the sexism in the world for good, the ladies are played by the likes of Issa Rae, Sharon Rooney, Dua Lipa, Emma Mackey, and an uproarious Kate McKinnon as “Weird Barbie”—the product of a bored adolescent girl who started to cut her Barbie’s hair and paint her face (a phase this woman critic vividly recalls, for all her sins).
They are having so much fun holding all the positions of power in their land that who could blame them for treating the Kens (John Cena, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, Scott Evans and others) as pretty objects, and casually dismissing the harmlessly sweetie-pie Allen doll (Michael Cera in his most lovable role since “Juno”)?
Then again, no amount of girl-boss fun amid all the Barbriarchy can prevent Robbie’s stereotypical Barbie from having an existential crisis with thoughts of death. Discovering that she’s activated a portal between the real world and Barbie Land, she decides to go on a journey to the equally make-believe Los Angeles and reclaim her worry-free life back once and for all.
Dying to impress her, Gosling’s himbo Ken—not good for anything other than looking dreamy on a beach—joins her across land, air and space to find Barbie’s owner and negotiate with the Mattel CEO (an uproarious Will Ferrell), who talks a lot of nonsense about female empowerment in male-dominated meeting rooms. Joining them in the real world is a scene-stealing America Ferrera as the loving single mother/one-time Barbie owner Gloria and her cynical daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) who hates the Barbies’ guts for destroying feminism.
It can’t be overstated how far both Robbie and Gosling push their facial muscles and star power to chart their respective dolls’ real-world awakening, in ways both laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking. In Robbie’s case, her angelic Barbie gets genuinely startled the second she realizes she’s being objectified while rollerblading in Venice. Embarking on the opposite journey is Gosling: previously doing as he’s told by Barbie, craving her gaze and getting kicked out of her house on her schedule, now overjoyed by his discovery of the real-world concept of patriarchy. And as if Barbie Land hasn’t been rocked enough, the now mink-wearing haughty Ken dares to take the patriarchy with him back home, downgrading his once-pretty mothership to frat houses of mini fridges, sports memorabilia and cheap six packs.
On paper, the feminism of “Barbie” isn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking. Yes, we know being a woman often feels like a lose-lose scenario in a misogynistic world. And yes, we know that sexist men often vampirically feed on being admired by women they can mansplain things to. But once Gloria delivers the film’s (and one of the year’s) best scenes in a monologue about womanhood, you (hopefully, regardless of the gender you’re born with or identify as), might just hear something click deep inside of your soul. Her gentle outburst boils down to all the ways we know how impossibly hard it is to be a woman—it’s one thing if you’re not image-conscious, it’s another if you are worried about your weight, no matter how above-it-all you claim to be.
It’s one thing if you prioritize your career, it’s another if you make your family your main focus. It’s one thing if you want to be all the things, it’s another if you don’t. And let’s not even mention trying to stay afloat with all these conflicting goals and feelings in a man’s world, where women aren’t always allowed to be allies to one another. This woman critic didn’t realize she started crying in gratitude as Gloria went on and on. Turns out, one does want to hear the reality spelled out sometimes, however obvious it may be.
Still, it’s not the aim of “Barbie” to darken your mood as a fun and abundantly populist studio picture, in which Gerwig presents the audience with various Kentastic musical tracks and in one stupendous instance that shouldn’t be spoiled, a friendly middle-finger to Matchbox Twenty through Gosling’s fearless performance. Thanks to Gerwig’s imagination, this “Barbie” is far from plastic. It’s fantastic.