Greta Gerwig’s meta, live-action, satirical fantasy based on the popular Mattel fashion dolls starts out magnificently. A stellar Margot Robbie stars as the titular doll generations of girls (and boys) born post-1960 grew up with. Specifically, Robbie plays the “Stereotypical Barbie,” in that she embodies the image we tend to think of when we hear the name—a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, Caucasian with a whiter-than-white smile and feet perfectly shaped for high heels. But since Mattel has made hundreds of Barbie Dolls over the decades of many styles, ethnicities, and career trajectories, all the Barbie characters that live in this movie’s vision of “Barbieland” call each other Barbie. And, of course, they all have boyfriends named Ken, though the guys are more like accessories along the same lines as the Barbie cars and Barbie dream houses. Yes, there are Skippers and an Allen, but most of the folks who populate the matriarchal society are Barbies and Kens.
In the movie, Barbieland is the organic result of sentient toys who fully bought into the idea that if little girls play with dolls who identified as doctors, lawyers, astronauts, and business executives, rather than just wives and mothers, they will grow up to be self-confident, successful women with power and agency over their lives. The fact that Barbie’s body type is unattainable in the real world without major plastic surgery and an eating disorder isn’t something the inhabitants of Barbieland think about any more than the little girls who play with them do. They’re all too busy having fun.
That is until one day when Stereotypical Barbie starts thinking about death. Unable to shake her troubled feelings, she and Stereotypical Ken (a hilarious Ryan Gosling) make the journey out of Barbieland into the real world—epitomized by Venice Beach, California. The broad fantasy then becomes a fish-out-of-water story where Barbie and Ken discover that the presence of Barbie Dolls in popular culture didn’t topple the patriarchy of the real world after all. This realization furthers Stereotypical Barbie’s existential crisis and empowers the clueless Ken.
For the first forty minutes or so, it really seems like Gerwig has figured out how to transcend the fake corporate feminism of Mattel’s Barbie doll philosophy and make a subversive film that deconstructs that whole mythos while still being a fun night out at the movies. But then Barbie walks into Mattel headquarters and meets its CEO, played by Will Ferrell, followed by an encounter with a group of tween girls who criticize her in a “comically” precocious manner for all the harm her unrealistic beauty standards have caused. Within a span of five minutes, the “real world” suddenly becomes as unreal as the “Barbie world,” and the film instantly devolves into one of those single-joke, extended comedy skit movies that can’t sustain a feature-length running time.
The film never recovers from the introduction of Ferrell and the main tween girl played by Ariana Greenblatt (though both do a perfectly good job of delivering what the movie wants from them). All the themes and ideas in the movie get reduced to bullet points and bumper stickers that feel increasingly awkward coming out of the characters’ mouths and thus less and less convincing. My experience of Barbie was like watching Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure suddenly turn into Mars Attacks!; or as if a projectionist running John Carpenter’s They Live intentionally switched reals and started running Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up.
Barbie has sporadic narration by Helen Mirren and an ongoing song by Lizzo, both of which comment on the action as it unfolds. I think I might love a version of this movie that knew how much better it would have been with just the Lizzo songs. With both, the movie seems to encourage (maybe even beg) audiences not to take anything about it too seriously, which runs counter to the timely themes. Barbie is not an example of a film that cleverly sugarcoats its subtext to go down easier; it’s a film that dilutes its societal commentary with so many winks, inside jokes, and self-referential asides that its ideas become meaningless.
As the movie progresses, Gerwig and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach double down on the bad-feature-length-SNL-movie qualities. They attempt to maintain the picture’s stylistic playfulness while only succeeding in lowering the stakes of their scenario. The sharp satire loses its bite as the threat of Barbieland getting turned into a permanent patriarchy becomes so easy to defeat that the resolution practically happens off-screen. Many viewers may see this simple unraveling of a strawman as an empowering fantasy. To me, it seems as guilty of the type of pseudo-feminism Barbie has always trafficked in—“Sure, we don’t have the ERA, but we just confirmed Supreme Court Justice Barbie, and that’s almost as good, right?” Thus, Gerwig’s film feels far more “on brand” for Mattel than for the filmmaker she’s been for the last fifteen years (since even before the triumphs of Lady Bird and Little Women).
It’s not that there isn’t some great stuff in Barbie; it’s that the basic concept and surface details are so much stronger than the resulting film. This is the type of movie people will love because of what it “tries to do” and what Gerwig was “able to get away with” within the context of empty corporate intellectual property cinema. Of course, I’m thrilled by what the same-day releases of Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has meant for the bottom line of movie theaters I care deeply about, and how the “Barbenheimer” phenomena has excited so many people about going to summer blockbusters again. I just wish the two films weren’t such prime examples of the type of movies I hate—a pretentious, overwrought biopic that claims to have something important to say about history, and a dazzling but shallow brand-relaunch masquerading as a rebellious film of ideas.
Greta Gerwig's big swing starts out as if it might actually deconstruct and transcend the fake corporate feminism of Mattel’s Barbie Doll philosophy, but it quickly collapses into itself becoming an embodiment of that mythos.