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‘Barbie’ review: A sweet, safe satire

Greta Gerwig's ‘Barbie’ has great imagination and charm, but the subversion doesn't cut too deep

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in 'Barbie'. Image via AP
Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in 'Barbie'. Image via AP

In Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), Marie I and Marie II, two women introduced as human-size marionettes, commit to anarchy. But when a gardener and a group of cyclists ignore them, one feels a pang of existential worry. “We were invisible to him,” she says. The other Marie shows her a mess they made earlier, proof that they haven't ‘evaporated’. The next shot is of them chanting “We exist! We exist!” as they march past a series of locked doors. The scene ends with quick successive closeups of the padlocks.

I was reminded of Daisies while watching Greta Gerwig's Barbie, when the eponymous doll has her own existential crisis. It wasn’t because the films resemble each other, but because their energies are so different. Both have an interest in illuminating, through means of subversion, the roles women are expected to play in society. But Daisies is a film with rude, confusing energies—the scene quoted above, for instance, lends itself to any number of interpretations. In Barbie, the subversion is neater, digested fully before the next scene begins.

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Blonde, beautiful, endlessly cheerful Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in Barbieland, a pastel paradise. She goes about her costume parties, choreographed dances and visits to the beach with unfailing enthusiasm, every day the same. She’s Stereotypical Barbie; her friends are President Barbie (Issa Rae), Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef), Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey), and so on. They address each other as just ‘Barbie’, though—just as the Kens all call each other ‘Ken’. The Kens (played by Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir and others) aren’t as well-defined. They only have meaning in relation to Barbie, which is why Gosling’s Ken has a good day when Robbie’s Barbie pays attention to him, whereas Barbie is perpetually living the best day of her life.   

As it did in The Truman Show (1998), this idyllic world starts to glitch. Out of nowhere, in the middle of a dance number, Barbie wonders aloud if anyone there has thought about dying. The next day, she finds her perpetually arched feet—an exquisite joke, somewhat ruined by placing it at the start of the trailer—are now flat. She even discovers—the horror!—a touch of cellulite. Sent to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) for counsel, she’s told she must travel to the real world and track down the Barbie owner responsible for her blues. 

Barbieland itself is a terrific feat of imagination and design, all pink and purple tones and synth pop. Gerwig uses the specifics of Barbies past and present—sometimes the costumes are identified in a freeze-frame, like in a commercial—to fashion her world. Yet, it also feels handmade, a goofy, loving recreation of a childhood dream. It's served with an umistakable Demy-glace, not just the soft colors and the styling but the comic numbers written by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt. They’re all catchy, but “I’m Just Ken”, sung by Gosling, is unreservedly good, a power ballad that morphs into a A-ha-style dance track as Liu and Gosling’s rival Kens stare each other down on the dance floor.  

The contours of the film’s politics come into clearer view once Barbie and stowaway Ken arrive in California. She’s shocked to discover women don’t run the place, and that Barbie dolls are dismissed as shallow and anti-feminist. The owner she's looking for, an angsty tween named Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), has long since given up playing with dolls; it’s her mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), a secretary at Mattel, who’s been unknowingly transferring her frustrations onto Barbie. Ken, though, is delighted to discover a place where men and horses (Ken isn’t the brightest) are entirely in charge. Mattel itself is satirized: the management is revealed to be entirely male, led by Will Ferrel’s bumbling CEO. 

Barbie crying for the first time and finding it cathartic is beautifully played by Robbie. But the scene soon after, where she tells an old woman on a park bench, “You’re beautiful”, and the woman replies, “I know”, is needy in its sentimentality. The satire is so literal that at one point Barbie is asked to step into a box. Mattel allowing itself to be caricatured might seem subversive at first glance. I’d say it’s the exact amount of subversion the company decided it could live with in order to make a film that could be marketed as slyly feminist.  

The writing is so careful that Gerwig and co-writer Baumbach seem to have thought through possible responses and addressed those as well. The Narrator, voiced by Helen Mirren, interjects during a scene about unrealistic body expectations to say that casting Margot Robbie isn’t the ideal way to make that point. “White saviour Barbie,” Sasha quips in another scene, only to have Barbie explain that it's actually her mother’s reasoning that she's repeating. The writing is funny in a sketch comedy sort of way, but plays so safe that I longed for a little rudeness. There’s a stray line about indigenous people that fell flat, yet had a whiff of the more scattershot approach of Baumbach’s own films. 

It feels uncharitable to Robbie’s performance, which has both comic deftness and a touching openness, to say that Gosling steals the film. It’s a joy to watch him play an underconfident doofus, tying himself into knots every time Barbie smiles at him (if only Liu was a solid foil). Ken’s deference to Barbie is matched by Gosling’s deference to Robbie: he makes himself nervous and silly and she seems even more radiant in comparison. Barbie isn’t the revolution we were promised. But Ken’s a ten.  

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