Barbie review – a gorgeously weird blockbuster event

Review by Hannah Strong @thethirdhan

Directed by

Greta Gerwig


Emma Mackey Hari Nef Margot Robbie Michael Cera Ryan Gosling


In Greta we trust.


Bigger, zanier, and stranger than expected.

In Retrospect.

Has a few rough edges, but Gerwig continues to dance to her own beat.

Greta Gerwig's behemoth blockbuster is a stranger, more fascinating film than its hyper-corporate marketing would suggest.

It’s a great shame that throughout the Barbie press cycle, seemingly no one has asked Greta Gerwig about Marcel Proust. The multihyphenate is an avowed fan – there’s a throwaway joke about his (literally and figuratively) heavy work in Frances Ha, and in LWLies’ 2018 interview with her, she refers to the quasi-Proustian memory experience of making the semi-autobiographical Lady Bird.

In Barbie, her consumerist behemoth that brings America’s sweetheart out of the box and onto the screen, Proust once again makes an appearance, when Margot Robbie’s picture-perfect Stereotypical Barbie steps inside her plastic packaging, and remarks that the familiar smell is a Proustian memory. “Ugh, remember Proust Barbie?” Will Ferrell’s nameless Mattell CEO nods to his team of Yes Men. “That did not sell well.”

Perhaps this could be dismissed as another quirky joke, in a film that also makes reference to The Snyder Cut and the universally beloved BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but given Gerwig’s history, it seems unlikely that Proust is a name she threw out there as a twee nod for all the Hot Literature Girls in the audience.

Instead, the reference speaks to the way in which Barbie – a hyper-corporate studio picture with the marketing budget to match – fits into the cinematic canon Gerwig has been carefully curating, but also the strange, often disconcerting way in which the sublime (fine art, literature, classical music) sits alongside the irrefutably corporate (blockbuster filmmaking, pop music, Barbie) in our modern world.

When it was announced that Gerwig would co-write and direct a live-action Barbie movie back in July 2021, many were sceptical about her transition from indie darling to the ultimate representation of sanitised capitalism. Even with universally well-liked actors Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling on board, how could Gerwig possibly maintain any artistic integrity while working hand in hand with one of the biggest (and most litigious) toy companies on earth? A litany of set photos, teasing comments and one concerning New Yorker article have done little to dampen enthusiasm or reassure sceptics. Would Greta Gerwig’s Barbie feel like a Greta Gerwig film or a toy advert created by corporate committee? Perhaps a secret, stranger, third thing?

The film opens with a scene that was heavily teased back in 2022, with a larger-than-life Barbie appearing as the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, while Helen Mirren explains in voice-over the history of dolls. It’s a cheeky move, positioning something as unmistakably feminine as Barbie alongside a film widely regarded as one of The Greatest of All Time, but to be honest, Kubrick and Barbie have probably had a similarly vast cultural impact.

This introduction segues into a whistle-stop tour of Barbie history, in which we learn that the Barbies of Barbieland believe that their very existence has solved all problems of inequality and intolerance within The Real World. Cocooned in a pastel pink dreamland, Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) and all her friends have “the best day every day” – that is, until Stereotypical Barbie starts experiencing malfunctions, including flat feet, bad breath, and overwhelming thoughts of dying.

But Barbie can’t die. So why can’t she stop thinking about death? A meeting with Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, Gerwig’s old college friend, appearing as a doll who was “played with too hard”) reveals that there’s a link between Barbie and her ‘person’ in the real world, and in order to fix the rift, she’ll have to journey by car, plane, rocket ship, boat, snowmobile, campervan, tandem bike and rollerblade to Los Angeles, and make things right.

So Barbie sets off, with her trusty boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling, the most game he’s ever been) in tow, to track down Gloria (America Ferrera) and her tween daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). But Barbie’s journey to the real world attracts the attention of Mattel’s corporate bods – an anonymous group of men in suits who exist in a building that replicates the grey offices of Jacques Tati’s Playtime – who immediately set out to put Barbie back in her place and restore order.

So far, so straightforward. Barbie sets itself up to be a fish-out-of-water story in the vain of Splash or Enchanted, but ends up a much stranger creation, as the doll becomes aware not only of reality, but of the myriad complications that come with it – chiefly memories, emotions, and purpose. While Barbie reckons with her existence, Ken discovers patriarchy and likes what he sees.

What starts as a quest to restore order to Barbieland soon becomes a Battle of the Sexes, and while there is some questionable gender essentialism at play (one must be either a Barbie or a Ken, not any combination of the two, and in Barbieland, feminism seemingly never had any cause to move past the Second Wave) the film succeeds much more when it leans into its emotional core rather than when it tries to Do Feminism (a losing game for Barbie, which can rebrand as inclusive and self-deprecate until the cows come home, but ultimately remains part of a capitalist hellscape selling #empowerment and self-consciousness to kids).

The emotional core of the film is pure Gerwig, though, easily linked to Little Women and Lady Bird in its examination of the ways in which women relate to one another, particularly across generations and families. Although Gerwig wears her cinematic influences proudly, from The Truman Show and The Young Girls of Rochefort to All That Jazz and The Golddiggers of 1933, it also feels reminiscent of Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, in which Gerwig starred as a free-spirited photographer undergoing treatment for cervical cancer. That nostalgic but clear-eyed film, in turn, was made of memories, and in Barbie, for all its corporate sheen, you can see Gerwig’s fingerprints, whether it’s in the use of Indigo Girls and Matchbox 20, or a loving blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man.

Much has been made of the film’s large supporting cast, and although Issa Rae (President Barbie), Simu Liu (Ken), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Ken) and Michael Cera (Allan) are given the most to do outside of the principles, everyone is perfectly game and well-cast. Robbie and Gosling eschew any attempt at irony and embody the fantastic plastic that their roles require. Robbie is a burst of sunshine who moves with characteristic grace but still manages to hit emotional beats convincingly as she wrestles to understand what she was made for.

Gosling is her foil in many regards – bombastic and exaggerated, a master of physical comedy, capable of creating comedy from something as simple as a bicep flex. He sings, he dances, he peacocks around in a mink coat after being inspired by a picture of Sylvester Stallone. When Barbie becomes increasingly more self-aware, Ken becomes the opposite, as he struggles to envision himself as a separate entity from the doll he was created to serve.

This is the human struggle – to work out who we are, underneath it all. If we are not our job, our house, our possessions, our relationships, or, as Ken suggests, “beach”, who are we? In Proust’s seminal ‘In Search of Lost Time’ – the novel from which the concept of the Proustian memory emerged, through the mention of a tea-soaked madeleine – the writer grapples with the inevitable passage of time and fading of memories.

To be human is to accept (and perhaps, at times, actively fight against) this irony: the more memories we accrue, the less we remember of them. The older we get, perhaps the more we realise we don’t know. Barbie is, against the odds, a film about what a joy it is to create those memories to begin with. To spend time with loved ones, to play with toys and lose ourselves to imagination; to find friends, to have parties, to exist on our own terms. To remember all the love, and the loss, and the strange, agonisingly short experience of being alive.

It’s not perfect, but as Ferrera’s character remarks, “If you can’t make it perfect, you can at least make it better.” Gerwig’s filmmaking enriches our world, earnest and joyous and thoughtful. Even under the guise of a piece of massive IP, she maintains that spirit where others have failed. While some will inevitably miss the intimacy of her past work, Barbie proves Gerwig’s strengths as an artist are as applicable to big-budget, grand-scale filmmaking as they are the small ambitions of her mumblecore years and past two solo efforts. She shares so much of herself and personality, there’s a creative spark that it’s hard to deny.

It’s a shame that Gerwig, and so many other talented filmmakers, are rarely given the resources to produce art with such ambition, and I highly doubt studios will learn the right lessons from a film like Barbie, should it meet or exceed its lofty box office expectations (namely, they will assume that it’s the IP audiences love, rather than the ambitious, individual storytelling). But like Barbie, I suppose I haven’t given up hope yet.

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Published 18 Jul 2023

Tags: Barbie Greta Gerwig Margot Robbie Ryan Gosling


In Greta we trust.


Bigger, zanier, and stranger than expected.

In Retrospect.

Has a few rough edges, but Gerwig continues to dance to her own beat.

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