Everyone in Barbie, the much-anticipated film from writer-director Greta Gerwig, is having an existential crisis. At first blush, this seems impossible, with the film’s colourful world of Barbieland presenting as a Truman Show-like enclave free from the capriciousness of reality. In this conception of the iconic doll, however, Barbie and Ken, their customers—even their corporate masters—are struggling for meaning. Imagine that.
Co-written with her Ken (Noah Baumbach), Gerwig’s Barbie follows the well-worn paths of toy-inspired films that have come before. We’re introduced to “stereotypical” Barbie (Margot Robbie), her Ken (Ryan Gosling), and the logic of their pink-hued, plastic world. All’s well until Barbie inexplicably starts thinking about death (and worse: cellulite), sending her on a journey of self-discovery that inevitably leads her into the real world to meet both her owners (America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt) and maker (Will Ferrell, woefully miscast). The fish-out-of-water gags from this exchange come easy—particularly with Gosling’s help—but the film really takes off when it considers the reverse scenario: what would happen if Ken brought knowledge of the patriarchy back to Barbieland? The fun and frisson of Gerwig’s film is in how it deploys this idea, allowing her to choreograph its best and most surreal scenes while shifting away from the basic jokes of the film’s first half. There’s little doubt the target audience (e.g. millennials) will re-identify with Barbie here, even in her inverted too-perfect world. As expected, though, there’s no escaping the film’s conclusion, which requires Robbie’s Barbie and all her pals to rediscover themselves—and reconnect with the nostalgic value of Barbie as an ever-present and adaptable cultural force.
This leads to Barbie‘s bottom line, and a feeling I could not shake: no matter how pure Gerwig’s love of and for Barbie and her world may be, it’s still rooted in this world, ours. So while I can appreciate how this film navigates the various contradictions of its concept, and the inherent comprises necessary to make it with and for Mattel, that bottom line still remains: remember Barbie? Please buy more Barbie.