Film review: Life in plastic may be fantastic, but ‘Barbie’ connects through the human struggle
Margot Robbie plays the titular role in “Barbie.” Directed by Greta Gerwig, the film premiered July 21. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Warner Bros. Pictures
July 21, 2023 2:43 p.m.
This post was updated July 23 at 5:29 p.m.
Any day at the theater can be the best day ever when “Barbie” is playing.
On Friday, director Greta Gerwig unboxed the story of the widely adored fashion doll as Barbie Land and the Real World collide. After her picture-plastic daily routine goes awry, Barbie (Margot Robbie) embarks on a multi-vehicle journey to Los Angeles to find the human girl who plays with her, as the duo’s emotional bond holds the key to restoring normalcy. With hilarious dialogue, witty fourth-wall breaks and lots of whimsy, “Barbie” brilliantly dives head-first into the exuberance of imaginative play to inquisitively examine humanity and its self-constructed gender binary through its manifestation into a consumable product.
Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s multidimensional writing presents a sturdy foundation for “Barbie” to shine. Every comedic quip is balanced with an equally moving and impactful scene, as the pair beautifully conduct an orchestra of emotions. Starring as the youthful, yet ageless doll, Robbie goes beyond the plastic packaging to deliver a dynamic and moving performance honoring Barbie’s special legacy as the beloved toy many grew up with. Robbie’s Barbie hits all the notes with intimate, soft moments as she sheds her first tear, admires an elderly woman’s beauty and simply feels. This strengthens her resonance with the hearts of the audience and gorgeously encapsulates the essence of humanity.
Though the entire film fully commits to the illogical rules of childhood play, another one of its strengths is its own comedic self-awareness, which will surely benefit its longevity as it is quick to point out its own toy-induced absurdity. Aside from a convincingly crafted commercial break for a depressed Barbie, the narrator’s (Helen Mirren) tongue-in-cheek lines provide necessary history, while also acting as the audience’s quick-witted liaison to Barbie Land. Though these disembodied interjections often elicit laughter, they also slightly overshadow the film’s heart-wrenching moments on occasion.
“Barbie” is replete with stunning casting choices by Lucy Bevan and Allison Jones, who selected an equally strong supporting cast to act as a backbone for Robbie and Ryan Gosling, who plays Ken. Namely, Michael Cera as Allan was a brilliant decision, as awkwardly-long cuts to Cera’s soulless gaze perfectly encapsulate his unspoken story and unusual singularity, in contrast to the swaths of Kens and Barbies.
Hailing from the Real World, America Ferrera’s fierce, yet endearing portrayal of Gloria quickly makes her someone to root for. As Barbie’s human, Ferrera pairs well with every actor she performs alongside, developing relationships that are complex and intriguing, such as the one with her character’s daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). However, it is with Robbie that Ferrera truly sparkles, as the duo’s connection provides a major source of catharsis for everyone negatively impacted by the patriarchy.
Matching Gosling’s amusing aloofness as Ken is Will Ferrell as the Mattel CEO. Ferrell fully commits to this personality, making him the perfect leader for the Mattel goons, especially while they chase Barbie throughout the company’s headquarters in the most farcical, inefficient way, bickering over minuscule matters, including who gets to press the elevator button and scrambling to find a keycard for a turnstile.
Beyond superb casting, one of the film’s greatest gifts is its firm stance on Barbie and Ken’s dynamic. Though the public often treats Barbie and Ken as synonymous with Romeo and Juliet, Gerwig’s refreshing take on the platonic duo is a force for good in an industry oversaturated with stories of female-male romance. Even as the story draws to a close with Barbie’s ending undefined, the Mattel CEO once again posits the idea of her ending up with Ken. The rejection that follows is a clear indicator for audiences to respect Barbie’s feelings, serving as a necessary reminder to look beyond the bright colors and glimmering music and truly take the important messages at the film’s core to heart.
Unlike Mattel, which can manufacture countless Barbies of all careers and identities, “Barbie” ultimately has one protagonist with the near-impossible task of encapsulating the universal connection achieved by an array of dolls. Though the titular character’s ending may seem nebulous, it is that lack of definition that works in the film’s favor.
In refusing to give Barbie a designated career path in the Real World, she is able to resonate with every audience member, as humanity is what connects them. By the time the colorful credits roll, any past yearning to become Barbie has now dissipated, as the doll herself has become more like us instead. This cunningly flips the narrative that has stretched across Barbie’s history, producing a radiant and successful revitalization of the already beloved franchise.
Turning an age-old conversation into a fresh, cathartic tale, Gerwig’s “Barbie” is as precious as the imagination that Barbie inspires.