Sometimes you’ve just got to keep up with the zeitgeist. Hence, Barbie (2023), a film that forced itself into the national conversation so thoroughly I felt compelled to find out why, despite a general lack of interest in the product. It’s quite clever, breezy, and fun, and while the magnitude of its success is somewhat surprising, the success itself certainly isn’t.
The adventure begins in Barbie Land, where “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) lives her perfect life in a colorful fantasy world. In a society ruled by women, Stereotypical Barbie is perfectly content until suddenly, one day, she’s plagued by thoughts of death, and imperfections start to mar her idealized toy body. She seeks the guidance of “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon)—a Barbie who was played with too aggressively—who advises her that a rip in reality has occurred, and the anxieties of her real-world owner are starting to bleed into Barbie Land. The solution is to journey to the real world to meet her owner Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) and restore the status quo. Unfortunately, Stereotypical Barbie’s dim, dissatisfied boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) tags along. While Barbie is attempting to work things out with Sasha, her mother Gloria (America Ferrera), and the suits at Mattel, Ken disastrously discovers the patriarchy, embraces it, and brings it back to Barbie Land, brainwashing its denizens with toxic real-world injustice. Can Stereotypical Barbie save Barbie Land from our broken ways?
You’ve got to hand it to writer/director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach for the audacity with which they bring a storied toy franchise to the big screen, taking a conventional property and spinning it out with wild, caustic metacommentary. They walk a tricky line, managing to celebrate, mock, and subvert the cultural impact of a beloved product that has an endearing yet problematic history. The plot, initially reminiscent of The Lego Movie, isn’t exactly surprising, but its moments and details are inspired, and the verve with which Gerwig alternately satisfies Barbie’s fans and calls its baggage on the carpet is breathtaking. Along the way, it delivers plenty of laughs from an all-star cast, which is anchored by Robbie and supported most notably by Ferrara, Gosling, McKinnon, Michael Cera, and Simu Liu. In the end, oddly, it reminded me a little of “Weird Barbie”—a conventional toy with a simple, old-fashioned feel, which then got bent wildly out of shape the more it got tinkered with. The result is a masterpiece of cross-marketing: family-friendly and nostalgic enough to satisfy its corporate, market-driven origins, while also subversive and edgy enough to speak beyond its core audience. Its odd blend of introductory feminism and bald product placement doesn’t precisely make it a great movie, but it’s certainly a cagey, surprising, and broadly entertaining one.