Barbie is a delightful summer film with slightly awkward messaging
Modern blockbuster filmmaking continuously grapples with two conflicting truths. Hollywood has long struggled with diversity, even as it doubles down on franchises and major brands with histories rooted in the same societal structures much of the country is trying to move beyond. A company like Mattel has to put forth an earnest effort to appeal to everyone, without daring to stray too far from the formulas that defined a product like Barbie, including all the ideas that are now semi-safe to call problematic in the mainstream discourse.
Director and co-writer Greta Gerwig, who cut her industry teeth both behind and in front of the camera as part of the mumblecore movement, is uniquely suited to helm a film like Barbie. Mumblecore presented itself as raw intellectual angst, a sense of aimlessness that was never confronted with any pressing need to say anything interesting. Mumblecore is the allure of tapas and its endless possibilities, alongside the reality that you’re not actually going to consume anything that will fill your stomach.
Barbie is a very beautiful movie. Gerwig does a masterful job giving definition to Barbieland while always coloring inside the lines of Mattel’s world. Barbieland genuinely feels like big-budget childhood playtime, a warm and fuzzy encapsulation of the magic of pretend. You never lose sight of the walls of the panopticon, but it’s a confident world with an easy, natural draw.
As “Stereotypical Barbie,” Margot Robbie impressively walks an awkward line between lead character and train conductor, the latter constantly trying to pretend like this film is an ensemble piece. Mattel, Gerwig, and Robbie are all extremely sensitive to the negative societal structures that Barbie upholds, including fascism, body shaming, and an overabundance of whiteness. The fact that an entertaining movie managed to surface through all their defensive posturing is a legitimately impressive feat for a big summer film.
The plot is largely perfunctory and predictable. Barbie is forced to travel to the real world when she starts showing signs of aging, resulting in a lot of humor one could see coming from a mile away. Gerwig and her husband/co-writer Noah Baumbach’s script constantly winks at the idea of patriarchy while never digging beneath the surface of why these systems are in place. One might not be surprised that a film like Barbie would choose not to tackle these sorts of themes, except in the sense that the narrative opens all of these doors itself.
As with many blockbuster films based on franchises or well-known intellectual properties, Barbie struggles down the stretch of its third act. Robbie spends so much time playing second fiddle to other characters that her emotional payoff ends up leaning on audience nostalgia more than it has any right to. Her Barbie is everything, and nothing at all. There’s a vapid air to Barbie’s sense of inclusivity that the film and its 114-minute runtime simply can’t overcome.
None of this is necessarily an issue. Gerwig steers the ship toward heartfelt themes, even if the tides of Barbie’s corporate leviathan never allow for smooth sailing. Robbie is perfectly cast, with a delightful performance that leaves you wanting more. Ryan Gosling brings the ambiguous Rorschach test of a himbo known as Ken to life in a delectable fashion that comes close to stealing the show, though Gerwig is careful not to let a man upstage her quasi-feminist film.
Barbie is a delightful blockbuster movie, albeit one with a few predictable contradictions. The film is self-conscious that Robbie and Gosling, two beautiful white people, are its leads, but takes no meaningful action to alter that dynamic. Its themes of female empowerment contain as much depth as a slogan on a t-shirt from Urban Outfitters. Gerwig’s resume is used more as a shield to uphold the idea of Barbie’s feminist bonafides instead of meaningfully exploring them.
There is no denying that this is a fun movie with an exceptional cast that showed up to play ball. Some might be tempted to say that Mattel stepped on Gerwig’s feet, but her finished product lines up fairly well with her earlier mumblecore work that also struggled to present any genuine takeaways for its audience. The idea that a Hollywood film delivered a clunky take on intersectionality is hardly surprising, except for the fact that Barbie earnestly wants you to believe in its own ideas of empowerment. Maybe a good time at the theatre is more than enough.