Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling star in Barbie. // Photo Warner Bros.

Barbie takes movie industry by surprise

Directed by: Greta Gerwig

Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling

Adventure/Comedy/Fantasy | PG-13 | 1 hr 54 min

3.5 Stars

By Reed Ripley

Barbie wasn’t supposed to work. Not only did the filmmakers decide to make a movie for adults based off a line of dolls popularized in the 1960s, but also, they injected an existential crisis for good measure. That we’re here, with Barbie a certified global phenomenon, is a testament to one of the enduring, and simple, tenets of filmmaking—have something to say, and don’t compromise.

More than maybe any movie I’ve seen, especially of the blockbuster variety, Barbie is a product of a uniquely Millennial anxiety. Just like every generation before, the Millennials have inherited the problems of their predecessors, but unlike prior generations, Millennials grew up with the internet to constantly remind them how bad things are. 

In Barbie, that anxiety most specifically manifests in a woman’s experience, and rightfully so. It’s Barbie after all, and that’s exactly why Gerwig chose to take this on. Its message is simple, really—it’s freaking hard to be a woman, and society doesn’t acknowledge that enough. Barbie isn’t a lecture about it, but it does speak directly to a lived-in experience in a way that’s impossible to ignore. Am I saying all this because I’m a Millennial? Possibly, but so is Gerwig, and so is Robbie, and their experience in the context of their generation clearly influenced their direction and performance. 

The film’s not all existential dread, though, and it leans into Barbie’s history to consistently amuse and entertain. Maybe it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny in the moment, but there are tons of jokes and gags that keep coming to mind long after the film ends, and it’s easy to see Barbie becoming even more rewarding on rewatch.

That balance works really well thanks to Gerwig and her screenwriting team, but it also works because Robbie and Gosling embraced Barbie and Ken in a way that raised the film’s ceiling dramatically. It simply doesn’t work without Robbie’s ability to both literally look like a real-life Barbie and convey a wide breadth of emotion that pays off beautifully as the film unfolds, especially in a gorgeous sound stage montage moment late in the film that sees Barbie embrace the human experience in a collage of color and music. 

Gosling, too, fully commits to Ken in a way that allows the film to go places to which it might have otherwise struggled to get. Gosling brings classic Ken-doll looks with excellent comedic timing and an unwavering charisma. That keeps the audience always slightly in his corner, even when he leans too heavily into some particularly annoying aspects of toxic masculinity. When Ken says he was only into the patriarchy because he thought it had to do with horses, you believe him, and that’s hard to pull off. 

Despite its (refreshing) sub-two-hour runtime, Barbie does still drag in spots, especially when it transitions into the “Real World” for most of its second act. The production design in Barbie Land (where the film opens and concludes) is flat-out incredible. It really does feel like you’re in a life-size Barbie play set, and the gags that come with that almost never miss. 

The rest of the Barbie-and-Ken cast is there, too (including a hilarious performance from Kate McKinnon as “Weird Barbie”), and the Real World scenes just don’t match that energy. There was an opportunity there to play up the fish-out-of-water Barbie and Ken, and they did that to an extent, but more so it felt like a missed opportunity. 

Barbie is a flawed, fascinating bit of pop. Is it perfect? Far from it, but I don’t think you can walk away from the film without recognizing the film on screen is exactly what Greta Gerwig intended.

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