Every night in Barbieland is “girls’ night,” or so goes the bedazzled legend of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. The Barbies stay up late, talking, splashing in the pool, and the Kens go, well, wherever Kens go. What if one particular Ken (Ryan Gosling) wanted to stay over to make good on his promise of being Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) boyfriend? No can do. “The president is here!” Barbie insists. Ken goes home. Another day in paradise.
Gerwig’s vision of Barbieland is not so much a matriarchy but a Barbie-archy, a for-Barbie, by-Barbie culture in which every Barbie from President Barbie (Issa Rae) to Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef) to Writer Barbie (not this reviewer, alas, but Alexandra Shipp) is empowered to be the best Barbie she can be. The Barbies are Nobel Prize winners, astronauts, pilots. They’re happy garbagewomen and delivery workers. For the Barbies of Barbieland, their world is devoid of all that is miserable about the emotional experience of personhood: there is no embarrassment, fear, or self-effacing. Everything they do is with the utmost confidence. But not all are so lucky. The Kens––and the ever-forlorn Allan––are ancillary, forgotten, their existence predicated on little acknowledgments from Barbie. It’s not ideal, but it’s a living (along with “beach,” Ken’s career).
A rupture in the time-space continuum, a glitch in the matrix––whatever it is, Robbie’s Barbie flips out. Her feet go flat, she considers death (though whatever her idea of death is goes unexplored). Cast out from respectable Barbie society, she’s sent to the Real World via Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) in order to find the girl whose toy she is and fix her. It’s there that she experiences that to which she has been blind: inequality, patriarchy, body issues, even––no way––fascism! This extended fish-out-of-water sequence goes both ways. For all the difficulty Barbie experiences in the real world, Ken feels himself acknowledged, respected, and admired for the first time. And like any good ambassador, he appropriates: Ken brings patriarchy back to Barbieland.
Tearing down the boundary between “toy world” and “real world” is a tale as old as time. We see it in The LEGO Movie, in various Toy Story installments, in Pinocchio. Gerwig is the latest filmmaker to adapt IP based on children’s toys; don’t forget that later this summer you can see Trolls Band Together, the third entry in the DreamWorks animated series and the first under Mattel’s new ownership of the Trolls brand. Gerwig, known best for humanist comedies and feminist reimaginings, is now responsible for marrying all four of those concepts––humanist, comedy, feminist, reimagining––into a film that pleases women and pleases Mattel. Writing alongside her partner Noah Baumbach, the two have crafted an ouroboros of hot pink, neon yellow, sunshine, and pop music. “Things can be both/and. I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing,” Gerwig explained to The New York Times. The real question: is she doing either?
Gerwig is undoubtedly doing the thing: making Barbieland a hyper-stylized reality full of musical numbers, unique props, and arcane lore. The world she’s built for her Barbies, under either government system, is really funny, dense with jokes and asides and winks towards the brand’s long, complicated history. It’s a relief to watch a big-budget movie this summer that spent its money on a unique visual language. There’s not just one dream house, but a whole cul-de-sac of dream houses. The hills are alive with the sound of Barbie! At its sharpest, Gerwig and Baumbach’s script harken back to the former’s work in coming-of-age comedies––Frances Ha, Mistress America, even Lady Bird. Gosling gets the majority of the laugh lines, Ken’s men’s-rights awakening pushing his limited brain capacity to its very limit as he learns how to oppress.
Barbie mostly sustains a light touch through its distinctive look. Gerwig has spoken at length on how she drew from immersive movie-musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and An American in Paris, and her knack for song-and-dance sequences (even with an often-cloying, too-modern pop soundtrack) is undeniable. Each big number––there are quite a few––has its own look and feel, enhanced by the genius costuming of Jacqueline Durran (who did Gerwig’s Little Women as well) and cinematography of frequent late-Scorsese collaborator Rodrigo Prieto.
But when it comes to subverting the thing, Barbie gets a little shaky on its heels. Part of her nervous breakdown is recognizing limitations, personhood; just because the Barbies have made Barbieland a utopia (for Barbies) does not mean the real world reflects those ideals. Gerwig’s film is accordingly caught up in its own shifting philosophies. Is this a film about gender? About existential crises? Is it a movie about God (rendered, sort of, as Barbie creator Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Perlman)? Its attempts at serious discussion of what a doll is as both symbol and object are too vague for adults, too uninteresting for children.
The film’s latter half is prone to speechifying as Barbie teams with a real world mother-daughter duo (America Ferrara and Ariana Greenblatt, respectively), each of whom have their own complicated relationship with the doll. Their plot-motivated job is to undo the negative impact of patriarchy on Barbieland, the gender commentary of which would feel much fresher in 2016. Whatever they determine Barbie’s purpose to be in the meantime is beyond the bounds of this film, its script, or even the world. By the end it feels as though Gerwig and Baumbach put their hands up as if to say “Hey, we don’t know either!” It’s difficult to accept Barbie as a satire when the filmmakers’ earnest enjoyment of the cars, the houses, the outfits, and even the toy food feels much more indulged than any philosophical reckonings. We’ve never expected Barbie to be a real thinker––why start now?
Barbie opens on Friday, July 21.