REVIEW – ‘Barbie’ is a candy-coloured, bitingly subversive, and genuinely hilarious delight

For over six decades, one plastic doll has endured against all odds. From controversies and parodies to the rise of feminism and the women’s liberation movement, Barbara Millicent Roberts has survived it all. By constantly reinventing herself and evolving with the times, Barbie (or, more accurately, the gurus at Mattel Inc.) has always had a knack for finding new ways to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of each era. The time has finally arrived for her big screen debut. The result is one of the most spectacularly enjoyable films of the year.

Elevated by a sharp, insightful script from director Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach and led by the force of nature that is Margot Robbie in the role she was born to play, Barbie is a candy-coloured, dizzying delight that’s not only genuinely hilarious but bitingly subversive and shrewdly pertinent. With some of the most glorious production values you will see on the big screen in 2023 and a playful energy that’s intoxicatingly palpable, it’s fun with a capital FU to the patriarchy. In Greta we trust.

Every day is a perfect day in the utopian society of Barbie Land aka the make-believe homeworld of Barbie (Robbie) and her many, many, many variations who all rather confusingly share her name. After carefully selecting a perfect pastel-coloured outfit and eating a non-existent breakfast each morning, Barbie cruises around town in her pink and white Corvette to witness the exploits of her fellow compatriots.

There’s President Barbie (Issa Rae) leading the land from the White (but actually pink) House; Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp) who loves to wax philosophically at any moment; Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef) who’s always on hand to care of any medical needs; Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney) who fights for justice before the all-female Supreme Court; plus a few eccentric Barbies we don’t really talk about like the heavily pregnant Midge (Emerald Fennell) and the wacky but wise Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) whose owner played with her a touch too hard.

And, of course, there’s Barbie’s adoring boyfriend Ken (a scene-stealing Ryan Gosling) who only has a good day if Barbie looks at him. Constantly vying for Barbie’s attention, Ken not only has to compete with the endless stream of Barbies, but also his own band of similarly-named variations (played by Simu LiuKinglsey Ben-AdirScott Evans, and Ncuti Gatwa) with the support of his faithfully loyal “buddy,” Allan (Michael Cera).

While enjoying a giant blowout party with all the Barbies, planned choreography, and a bespoke song (that Dua Lipa disco banger that’s been stuck in your head for the last month), Barbie suddenly begins to experience existential thoughts for the first time in her life. When those introspections cause Barbie to become afflicted with dreaded “flat feet,” she must head to the “Real World” and uncover what’s causing this drastic change in her outlook on life.

On its surface, Barbie may just seem to be a silly, campy fish-out-of-water comedy with outlandish costuming and production designs that genuinely light up the big screen courtesy of a bubblegum pop colour palette straight out of Barbie’s extensive back catalogue. And, sure, it absolutely is all of those things. Gerwig taps into Barbie’s bright and bubbly aesthetic and persona with the kind of deep-seated reverence needed to honour the 60-year legacy of such a beloved cultural icon.

From Jacqueline Durran‘s vast collection of gorgeous costume designs and Sarah Greenwood‘s meticulously crafted life-sized toyland sets to Rodrigo Prieto‘s lush, painterly cinematography, Barbie is a visual feast that will surely feature heavily in the craft categories of the upcoming awards season. Everything truly looks like a Barbie play set brought to life, which will surely dazzle younger viewers and fill older audiences with the kind of nostalgia that’s clearly within Gerwig’s heart.

Gerwig and Baumbach’s screenplay is a riot of legitimately funny lines and sharp meta-aware humour that makes light of everything from the DCEU (brace yourself for the fanboy backlash, Greta) and The Godfather to Matchbox Twenty and even Robbie herself. It’s incisive comedy at its finest that left this critic laughing heartily numerous times. Gerwig gleefully throws in a few bombastic musical sequences that pay deft homage to movie musicals of the past with the kind of over-the-top choreography that takes full advantage of the impressive skills of former dancers Gosling and Liu.

If entertainment was Gerwig’s only goal, she succeeds in spades. But, thankfully, Warner Bros. has given Gerwig the freedom to make a staggeringly subversive film with far more to offer than just  Barbie’s trademark glitz and glamour. At its core, Barbie is a surprisingly sharp critique of gender inequity and the toxic masculinity of our inherently patriarchal society. In Barbie Land, women are on top in every aspect of their world. They live in naivete that’s how it is in the Real World too, leading to Barbie’s shock and dismay when the truth is revealed after meeting her human owners, Gloria (America Ferrera) and her feminist teenage daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt).

Ferrera is blessed with one of the film’s greatest moments in an extended monologue centred on the unfair dichotomy and hypocrisies of how impossible it is to be a woman in the 21st century that led to thunderous applause from my screening. It’s a sequence of astute dialogue that’s typical Gerwig brilliance which expertly taps into the frustration and pain of merely just attempting to exist as a woman without upsetting, offending, and/or disappointing someone somewhere. How ironic that this very monologue is likely to cause all manner of incessant vitriol from keyboard warriors on Twitter (or should that now be Threads?). Gerwig knows this. She clearly could not care less.

Since the extensive marketing campaign for Barbie began several months ago, it’s been abundantly clear Robbie was the perfect choice to bring Barbie to the big screen. And not just as its star. As one of the film’s four producers, Robbie has been in the driver’s seat of this production from its inception in 2019. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, statuesque appearance, and sparkling personality, Robbie is the very embodiment of a Barbie doll. But, unlike Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” once said of the titular toy, Robbie is no blonde bimbo girl in a fantasy world. This is Robbie’s world and she’s in full control of it.

Robbie brings a touching vulnerability and gullibility to Barbie that makes her such an eternally empathetic protagonist. She keenly understands there’s a huge difference between being stupid and being sheltered and leans into the latter to understand Barbie as a woman and not just a plaything. Robbie shines in both the film’s comedic moments and dramatic beats, proving once again the versatile performer she truly is. Unsurprisingly, she understands the assignment, as does Gosling.

If Robbie is the perfect choice for Barbie, Gosling is the epitome of Ken in every single way. In one of the most committed performances of the year, Gosling delivers a riotous comedic turn with a wickedly hilarious take on a character who’s been nothing more than Barbie’s sidekick for 60-odd years. It’s best to leave the particulars of Ken’s character arc unspoiled, but let’s just say the Real World changes his entire outlook on life in ways you won’t see coming. Gosling’s comedic timing is impeccable and his portrayal of a typically one-dimensional character is unexpectedly deep and nuanced. Oscar nomination, please.

It’s still rather unimaginable that Warner Bros. and Mattel offered Gerwig the kind of artistic freedom to deliver something so completely seditious and unexpected in the best way possible. This could have been nothing more than a 2-hour commercial for a toy line, but that was never going to happen under Gerwig’s watch. Barbie is a film that somehow both celebrates and critiques one of the most iconic products in modern history. Its existentialism, humanity, and societal commentary make it so much more than the sum of its visual parts. Much like the doll herself, Barbie is the gift that keeps on giving.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Michael Cera, Will Ferrell, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Sharon Rooney, Scott Evans, Ncuti Gatwa, Helen Mirren
Director: Greta Gerwig
Producers: David Heyman, Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Robbie Brenner
Screenplay: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production Design: Sarah Greenwood
Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran
Editor: Nick Houy
Music: Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: 20th July 2023 (Australia)

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