‘Barbie’ Review: Greta Gerwig, Margot Robbie, and Ryan Gosling Made an Instantly Timeless Masterpiece – The Daily Beast

After what feels like an eternity of waiting, “Barbie” has arrived—and in a moving, hilarious, nearly perfect package to boot.
Entertainment Critic
With all of the chatter regarding the Barbie movie for the last four years, the most pressing question has ended up being whether Greta Gerwig’s film could exceed the insurmountable hype surrounding it. There was an influx of candid set photos, multiple trailers and pre-release clips, and massively popular memes that quickly created a level of fatigue that was just as ubiquitous as the Barbie poster generator. Barbie was a sensation long before we were close enough to see the radiant pink glow of its looming July 21 release date. Surely, no matter how good the film was, it could never fully live up to that amount of sheer anticipation.
But to settle for tempered expectations is simply not the Barbie way. Barbie can be a doctor, a CEO, a politician, and even a damn mermaid. The sky's the limit for Barbie—scratch that; she’ll become an astronaut and defy that restriction too. With all of these achievements under Barbie’s belt, who better to bring her story to the big screen than Gerwig? In her career as a writer and a director, Gerwig has crafted exceptional, singular films that brilliantly assess the subtleties of womanhood. No one is quite so adept at making the ultra-specific feel universal.
So of course, in Gerwig’s capable hands, even a movie about the one of most popular toys of all time eludes expectations at every turn. Barbie is her mainstream masterpiece, a dazzling dream that will touch the souls of everyone who sees it, even if they’ve never picked up a doll.
For those viewers who may not be so familiar with the legacy of Barbie, the film opens with a crash course in the doll’s history. That 2001: A Space Odyssey reference from the first teaser trailer is no less amusing in the film itself, when it introduces the viewer to a monolithic version of the toy, before thrusting us into the technicolor world of Barbieland. It’s here where Barbie (Margot Robbie) and all of her friends—Barbie, Barbie, Barbie, and of course, Barbie—reside, living out each perfect day in one another’s company. For every Barbie, there is a Ken, trying to sweep a Barbie off of her factory-made elevated feet.
Robbie plays Stereotypical Barbie, a plain but indisputably beautiful doll who comes without a pre-packaged career path, letting the person playing with her use their imagination. A generic Barbie deserves a just-as-common Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose only real goal in life (besides getting Barbie to fall for him) is, quite simply, Beach. Ken loves Beach almost as much as he adores not buttoning his button-up shirts, and he’s extremely good at both of these things.
Most of the dolls in Barbieland might share the same name—although we can’t forget Allan (Michael Cera) and Midge (Emerald Fennell), two discontinued toys that still hang with the Barbies and Kens—but they’re all unique. Barbieland is as diverse as our real world, but no one ever calls attention to it. There’s no tokenism here; Barbieland is just a perfect utopia, where Barbie can be every woman. After all, as the film winkingly states in that opening montage about Barbie’s background, the prevalence of different types of Barbies means that all disputes of feminism and equal rights have been solved!
There’s just one problem: Barbie is having irrepressible thoughts of death. Okay, two problems: She’s also getting cellulite. Make that three: Her feet have gone—gasp!—flat. It’s not long before Barbie finds out that the sudden fear of her own demise is somehow connected to the human world, where whichever little girl is playing with her is starting to become world-weary. “She can’t be sad,” Barbie protests. “We fixed everything in the Real World.” The screenplay, which Gerwig co-wrote alongside her husband and creative partner Noah Baumbach, delicately stacks Barbie’s bursts of unintentional naivete, making her inevitable trip to the Real World to save herself from full malfunction all the more powerful.
Gerwig and Baumbach’s delightfully dry wit is omnipresent, and with so much to look at in Barbieland’s enchanting environment, it’s easy to miss these little jabs at how women are expected to operate in a man’s world. “I would never wear heels if my feet were shaped like this,” Barbie says of her newly flat sole, stumbling around in a pair of pumps. A caustic line like that could elicit sighs and eye-rolls galore, if it were written by anyone other than Baumbach and Gerwig. But their scripts have always masterfully coated irony with a thick layer of sincerity. Through nods to a kaleidoscopic list of cinematic references (their screenplay is The Red Shoes-meets-The Truman Show, through a Barbie-fied lens) and Robbie’s truly versatile performance, Barbie’s biting cultural commentary works in both small doses and big swings.
As Barbie and Ken (who tags along for the ride) wade into the murkiness of the Real World, they both are stricken by its fundamental differences. The conventional, gendered appearance of both of these famous characters—a longtime chief complaint of many of Barbie’s detractors since the Barbie doll’s debut in 1959—has a direct effect on how they’re treated by humans. Gerwig and Baumbach’s dissection of patriarchy and everyday misogyny ricochets between unassumingly cunning to overt and hilarious. Almost all of the laughs produced by Barbie and Ken’s trip to the Real World—and there are so, so many—cut deep. They’re the kind of incisive observational humor that Barbie’s pair of writers cut their teeth with in Frances Ha and Mistress America, dialed up so far that the knob broke off.
The genius of Barbie is that its script has an answer for everything. Gerwig and Baumbach know just what to say to Barbie cynics, who criticize the doll’s appearance, its potential impact on children, and how that might affect their perception of womanhood. The film firmly asserts Barbie as a feminist; at the same time, it skewers Mattel's own commodification of feminism to sell dolls. Even Ken, who could have easily been all comic relief and goofy one-liners, is rewarded with an intricate plotline that sways the film’s entire narrative, which Gosling commits to harder than he has for any role prior. Confused by how Gosling’s blonde, chiseled Ken, with perfect contoured pecs, can distract from what is inherently a woman’s story? Barbie has a tongue-in-cheek answer for that too.
Though Gosling is undeniably fantastic in the film—his physical comedy and line deliveries are the stuff of a bygone era of leading men—Barbie is firmly Robbie’s movie. Her Barbie is endlessly layered, thanks to Robbie’s affable demeanor and clear regard for this character’s importance. There is a stunning kindness to Barbie, and her natural benevolence and ceaseless compassion provide the film’s emotional crux. Robbie can make audiences cry at the drop of Barbie’s embroidered cowboy hat, but she doesn’t show her cards too early. Barbie’s final 20 minutes are gut punch-after-gut punch, but they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if Gerwig’s sensitive direction didn’t build up to them slowly. One particularly effective moment arrives not halfway through the film, when Barbie briefly meets an older human woman at a bus stop. It’s one of the most slyly poignant scenes in any of Gerwig’s films thus far; just thinking about it is enough to get me choked up.
That is the sheer power of Gerwig’s filmmaking. She can condense a feeling into its purest form with seemingly effortless aplomb. Barbie is a movie that only she could have made, and only after Lady Bird and Little Women. Those films exhibited Gerwig’s abilities to keenly analyze womanhood and societal ideas of femininity through an ultra-personal lens, which she’s managed to do again with Barbie, on a spectacular scale.
Though Barbie might throw around existential quips oft-seen online as we all continue to grapple with the fragility of life post-pandemic, Gerwig spins these jokes into something all her own. They go farther and hit harder than your average conversational nihilism. America Ferrera, who steals scenes as a human that Barbie meets during her time in the Real World, gets a monologue so compelling that it makes you laugh as much as it makes you want to throw up under the weight of the world’s immense imbalance. Ferrera might be talking about all of the things that women have to make themselves comfortable with just to survive in the world, yet it’s never preachy.
Barbie’s ability to cover so much ground in just under two hours is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Its granular level of detail will keep viewers coming back to it for years, just as they do their childhood Barbies, tucked away somewhere in a big, plastic bin. That nostalgia will be potent for mothers and daughters the world over, and Barbie’s regard for motherhood ends up being its most continuously stirring theme. The existentialist absurdity of the film’s dialogue will live on in meme format for years to come, but it’s the warm affection for a matriarchy that gives Barbie its bite, one that can’t be compacted into GIF form.
For anyone worried that Barbie would be Gerwig’s capitalist sellout, fear not. Even in an inherently plutocratic world, Gerwig maintains her integrity. Barbie will likely generate millions of dollars for Mattel, as the brand already does. But the film’s cultural impression will outlast the bigwigs who profit from it, while its plot chides the men who presently run the company for controlling an empire built on the image of a woman. Some might think those things are mutually exclusive, but Gerwig and Barbie don’t bother overthinking it; Barbie’s legacy has taught us all too well that you can’t please everyone. There’s more to be done, and Barbie is on a mission to change the world—again. Like the doll herself, the film needs no one’s permission but its own.
Entertainment Critic
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