- Directed by Greta Gerwig
- Written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach
- Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and Will Ferrell
- Classification PG; 114 minutes
- Opens in theatres July 21
You’ve already seen Barbie. We all have. The marketing campaign for Greta Gerwig’s gonzo unpacking of Mattel, in which Barbie is literally called a fascist by a 12-year-old girl, began in earnest last summer when paparazzi shots of Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in his-and-hers electric neon rollerblading outfits broke the internet.
Since then, especially if you are perpetually online, Barbie’s freight train of viral marketing has turned into a steamroller. In the final throes of an exhaustive publicity campaign before the SAG-AFTRA strike, the cast of Barbie visited Australia, South Korea, the United States, Mexico, Britain and Canada (or “Kenada,” considering all three of the beta males of Barbie hail from Ontario), each speaking to their individual target demographics.
For Letterboxd, writer-director Gerwig ran through Barbie’s cinematic influences, citing the dream ballet in The Red Shoes and the colour palette of The Young Girls of Rochefort. For GQ, Gosling offered advice on how to tap into your “Kenergy,” while Robbie took Architectural Digest readers inside a tour of the Barbie Dreamhouse. This week, if you Google “Barbie” or “Greta Gerwig” or even, “Mattel-funded cinema in service of late-stage capitalism,” the website goes pink. In an age of straight-to-VOD film releases, it feels like the rare summer blockbuster, helmed by a female creator, that could actually change our cultural consciousness.
But what did Gerwig make?
Barbie is both a master’s thesis on feminism and an Austin Powers-esque romp. It is an absolutely deranged comedy that wants to humanize its titular plastic heroine, forever biting the hand that feeds it, in an attempt to gain some gravitas for our twisted world where the men are in crisis and the women are forever posting pictures of their boobs and butts. Barbie wants to heal the world, but it also knows the world won’t like that, so it dresses up its intentions in even more existential hand-wringing and postmodern irony, taking something beautiful out of its plastic shell and rolling it around in the muck.
It’s also one of the most visionary cinematic achievements of the current century (put that in your pipe bomb and smoke it, Oppenheimer!) – bright, beautiful, bold and creative, with sumptuous candy-coated cinematography and wickedly smart costuming and production design. If this Film Critic Barbie had a crystal ball, she’d predict an Oscar win for Gosling, a historic box office return for its female auteur, and maybe some incels firebombing an American Doll café in protest. Oh, and it will make your mom cry on a plane. A lot.
The film’s plot goes something like this: Stereotypical Barbie (her actual character name, played by Robbie) has a perfect life in Barbieland, where every day is more fun than the last. Her boyfriend Ken (Gosling) is a crumbling mess, only existing for her gaze and approval. The world is run by Barbies of all shapes and sizes who are empowered, confident and gorgeous. They wear bikinis in the supreme court and can perform surgeries with one big plastic “boop” of their machine.
Until one day, Stereotypical Barbie begins to think about death. Her body becomes ravaged with cellulite and her arched feet fall flat. In order to make her life a dream again, Barbie must go to the Real World™ to find the child that has put such dark thoughts into her head. Only by reconciling with her human owner can this Barbie be free to be stereotypical again.
So Barbie heads with Ken to Los Angeles, where she realizes what it’s like to be seen as a sex object and Ken becomes radicalized by the patriarchy. The Mattel corporation sends out an APB for a Barbie on the loose, and Barbie’s real-world owner, Gloria (America Ferrera), a mother who yearns for her own childhood, travels back with Barbie to Barbieland alongside the salty tween daughter who hates what Barbie has done to the culture (Ariana Greenblatt). Unfortunately, what was once a feminist utopia has been radicalized by the Kens, so the Barbies must band together to get their world back. Somehow, this involves forcing all the Kens to take part in a climactic choreographed ballet.
If all this sounds insane to you, it is! Barbie, one must repeat, is fully insane.
What makes it one of the most captivating and unwaveringly feminist summer blockbusters ever to exist is an absolute, uncompromising commitment to the bit in terms of cinematic craftsmanship, direction and performance.
Robbie and Gosling are Barbie and Ken in full body, mind and soul, delivering the most charismatic and layered performances of their careers. Gerwig is in full command of a tone that careens between Vincente Minnelli musical, tampon commercial and a Tim and Eric sketch. This plane is on fire and the metal tires are screeching, but she sticks the landing with an uproarious final laugh line.
Somehow, against all odds, this over-the-top fantasy film that sees a battalion of hunks riding their invisible horses to a gang fight can also be a grounded, heartbreaking dramedy about the existential plight of a plastic doll. Call it crass, call it viral marketing, call it the future of our industry: This Barbie is a modern movie masterpiece that must be seen to be believed.