Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
Story based on the Mattel toy doll
Woke messaging in films
A feminist critique of capitalism
Barbie having an existential crisis
Films that appear to be for youngsters, but are NOT
Transgenderism promotion by Hollywood
Hollywood leftist deconstruction of ‘gender roles’ and increasing man bashing in movies
Feminism’s sexist anti-man messaging—painting masculinity as toxic and predatory / males as idiots, bigots or pathetic losers
Films that attempt to contrast fantasy and dark reality
Margot Robbie … Stereotypical Barbie
Ryan Gosling … Ken
Emma Mackey … Physicist Barbie
Hari Nef … Dr. Barbie, a transgender
Nicola Coughlan … Diplomat Barbie
Ritu Arya … Journalist Barbie
Alexandra Shipp … Writer Barbie
Dua Lipa … Mermaid Barbie
Kate McKinnon … Weird Barbie, implied Gay Barbie
Issa Rae … President Barbie
Sharon Rooney … Lawyer Barbie
Ana Cruz Kayne … Judge Barbie
Kingsley Ben-Adir … Ken
John Cena … Merman Ken
Simu Liu … Ken
Scott Evans … Ken
Ncuti Gatwa … Ken
Helen Mirren … Narrator
Will Ferrell … Mattel CEO
Michael Cera … Allan
Rhea Perlman … Ruth Handler, the real-life “creator” of Barbie and the first president of Mattel
America Ferrera … Gloria, a Barbie-loving mom
See all »
See all »
|Distributor||Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company|
Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” has a cotton candy wispiness that would be fine for a movie about a doll that comes to life, but behind the pink frosting facade, Gerwig has spun candy that is hard—and sour.
Gerwig, and her partner, Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the script, might appear to be apt choices to make a film about the odd person out trying to catch a break on the inside while still maintaining the quirkiness of an appealing outsider. Gerwig’s performances as an actress in Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress” and Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” were iconoclastic and daringly funny. Her insouciant embodiments of “innocent as doves” but secretly “wise as serpents” space-cadets in the mold of Zasu Pitts, Billie Burke and Judy Holliday, were a breath of fresh air.
As a director, however, Gerwig’s focus and tone have become stale, dour and accusatory. The wrathful “Lady Bird” and the unfaithful (literally and scripturally) “Little Women” were both successes, taking her from “low-budget indie” wannabe to well-healed Hollywood A-lister. As such, she not only abides by the rules of the realm, but has become one of its most reliable and outspoken voices.
With “Barbie,” Gerwig does everything bigger, bolder and louder. There is no soft underbelly to this doll. The film is pepper-sprayed with bursts such as: “either you’re brainwashed or you’re weird and ugly; there’s no in-between,” and my favorite, spoken to Barbie by a teenage student (a re-run of the “Lady Bird” speech shouted by that film’s title character to a conservative religious woman, a favorite Gerwig target): “You represent everything wrong with our culture… you destroyed the planet… you set feminism back,” and so on, concluding her “j’accuse” diatribe by calling Barbie “a fascist.” That kind of red-faced hectoring never lets up. Too often I felt as though I was sitting through a “Libs of TikTok” marathon.
The movie’s plot is a terse throw-away. The main doll, “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) lives in a fantasy world called Barbieland with all kinds of other Barbies who live in dream houses and drive dream cars. It is a feminist, but peculiarly unfeminine, environment in which the president is a woman, all nine Supreme Court justices are women, health care is provided by women, and businesses are run by women. The men, labeled “superfluous” citizens, are not even relegated to the sidelines; they have no place on the field at all.
A crack develops in Barbieland allowing Barbie to travel from fantasy land to the real world, a contrived plot device and a cheap “Matrix” rip-off, the first of many such “borrowings” from or references to earlier classic films, ironically ones made by decidedly non-feminist, macho filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola and, astonishingly, Robert Evans.
Each Barbie in Barbieland may have a plastic doll counterpart in the real world. Evidently, whatever happens to the doll and her owner in that realm has a concomitant effect on the Barbieland inhabitant. When the main Barbie starts developing human maladies such as flat feet and a bit of cellulite, she does not consult a Barbieland podiatrist or luposucionist (both of whom one would suspect in a perfect Barbie world would be crackerjack practitioners of their specialties), but instead travels to the real world (yes, in a pink Cadillac, pink motorboat, and pinkish rocket ship) to find the little girl whose dark thoughts has brought on her distress. Little does she know that her existential trip, for a doll, will lead her to fall into the clutches of the dark and male infested hands of the toy company that makes her, Mattel.
The Mattel conglomerate is located in Los Angeles, and traveling from one LaLa land to another could be fodder for some good jokes about how real and imaginary places may not be so different (remember the Star Trek movie scenario of the Enterprise landing in San Francisco, a place weirder than any extraterrestrial sphere could be?), but that nerve is never touched. Gerwig and Baumbach do know what side their bread is buttered on. There’s nothing new brought to this battlefield, even with Will Ferrell playing Will Ferrell playing a Ken-like dodo playing a past-his-prime jerk.
With each new performance, Ferrell is morphing into an A.I. version of himself, but in this case he sputters lines that an A.I. program, or even a Barbieland doll, would roll their eyes at.
In the real world, Stereotypical Barbie is absconded by secret service like Mattel minions while a befuddled Ken debates whether to rescue her or seek help. You may have already guessed that the film does not miss the opportunity to further emasculate Ken as he chooses to run back to Barbieland for help. Adding further insult to injury, he never returns for her either.
Meanwhile, Ferrell and his boardroom cohorts, all men in dark suits, prove to be easy, cookie-cutter targets. The strongest corporate retort to Barbie’s criticisms of their non-inclusiveness and all around non-niceness is a timid: “Some of my best friends are Jewish.”
This from Hollywood’s A-list original screenplay team?
Gerwig’s Barbie does not grow into a flesh and blood girl in the same way Pinocchio evolved into a boy through humility and self-sacrifice. She is inordinately cruel to Ken and seems to have a cold core, one that Margot Robbie sometimes brings to the surface, channeling the murderous character she played in the “Suicide Squad” movies, and giving her doll an edge that is sharp, if at times a bit rusty. Robbie has an inviting and generous smile which Quentin Tarantino used to enchanting effect in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” but she can turn that smile to something sinister and deadly, as she did in the underrated “Mary, Queen of Scots,” in which she used her grin as a mask to soften, or conceal, the human monster, and political genius, that was Queen Elizabeth I. In “Barbie,” Robbie can’t seem to get the balance right. She holds onto the Mattel plastic while keeping the vulnerable humanity at bay.
The film begins with Barbie, standing as a tall bathing-suit clad monolith surrounded by a bevy of very young girls who defiantly smash and toss away their baby dolls. It’s not just a cheesy rendition of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” opening where the apes bang bones they learned to use as weapons, but a cold and cynical cry for emancipation from the binds of what motherhood, and traditional womanhood, represent to the modern Hollywood sensibility.
As the movie unfolds, its makers herald the positives of such liberation, but shy away from its downsides. Barbie nonetheless develops a crisis of confidence, and then one of existence itself. Her anxiety is deep, the result we’re told, of patriarchal oppression, leading Barbie to have “irrepressible thoughts of death.”
When a tale starts, not with life as the Genesis story does, but with death, and that is what the baby destroying scene represents, it is fated to come full circle. Barbie’s “irrepressible thoughts” are about more than chauvinism. Those thoughts cry out for redemption and rebirth.
Despite her eschatological concerns, this living doll has no spiritual dismay and no sense of what she was created for. Does she look to Someone who, before she was formed, knew her? Her self-reliance, cynically referred to as empowerment, blinds her to seeing that “all things in heaven and earth, the visible and the invisible…were created through Him and for Him.” Barbie jumps from battle to battle, emulating the Director’s own personal fight for the rights of marginalized women everywhere, but by never putting on “the shield of Christ,” she is ultimately unequipped to “fight the good fight.” No wonder she and her real world counterpart have thoughts of despair and death.
Did I mention those thoughts are applauded by film’s end?
You know a movie’s script and production are weak when so much depends on a bevy of supporting and cameo appearances by underused, underwritten, or just miscast performers such as America Ferrera, Michael Cera, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, and John Cena who seem mostly befuddled by the polemic drivel they have to speak.
Helen Mirren is inexplicably and shamefully used as a narrator trying to elucidate the film’s mangled background story. Her commentary only makes this hapless doll world murkier and more punishing, declaring that playing with dolls might be fun, but ultimately harms little girls everywhere. Her voice, meant to be authoritative and instructive, is actually authoritarian and beguiling, like that of a matronly garden serpent.
Almost all the performances are amateurish and attention-seeking in the worst way, none more so than Kate McKinnon’s whose lack of comic skill is hidden behind by a tremendous well of self-regard. She plays “Weird Barbie”, not in a knowing and endearing sidekick-style in the vein of Eve Arden or Joan Cusack, but in a shrill and geyser-like fashion that is as jarring as her costume and inconsistent make-up.
There are several Kens, each different looking, but each behaving in basically the same way. Ryan Gosling plays the main Ken, and he almost brings it off. While watching him in all his tanned and bleached splendor, I wondered if his entire performance was nothing more than attempt to humor his director and co-star. He constantly tosses off his ridiculous costumes in the same style he throws away the beach taunts aimed at his co-Kens. Those exchanges, meant to be in-the-know jokes that would go over the heads of kids but tickle the ear of hip adults, are witless and sophomoric in their barely disguised homoeroticism.
Ken tags along uninvited on Barbie’s trip to the real world. She drives, of course, while he straddles the back seat. Unlike Barbie, Ken is captivated by the male energy of Los Angeles. He tries to bring that equine force back to Barbieland and build a society where men sport great biceps and abs, and have a great time drinking beer and dominating their female counterparts. There’s lots of male bonding in the new realm called Kendom, with men co-decorating their houses in horse motifs, exchanging outfits that include fancy furs, and doing bump, grind and male on male cheek-to-cheek kiss ala Busby Berkeley style dance routines on the beach and somewhere in the sky. This is presented as a patriarchy on steroids, a male world out of control.
Gosling’s god-like surface features seem particularly anti-feminist, the kind of physical specimen that you would not expect to find in a land ruled by powerful women, but the type you’d see on the covers of bodice-ripper novels or People’s Sexiest Man Alive issues, or perhaps in a Village People music video. But consistency is not a hallmark in the Gerwig-Baumbach universe. Discordancy is the point. The film’s liberation ethos, sexual and social, is a call, not for peace, forgiveness, and grace, or even enjoyment of what a world of toys can bring to a child, but a Progressive call to arms.
Or worse, it’s a gender studies lecture, where many Barbies and Kens are welcome, but only one voice, a very Feminist voice is allowed to speak, and be heard.
For the narrative arc, Writer/Director Gertwig was partially inspired by the 1994 non-fiction book Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, which accounts the effects of societal pressures on American adolescent girls. The book has been described as a “call to arms” and highlights the increased levels of sexism and violence that affect young females. Pipher asserts that whilst the Feminist movement has aided adult women to become empowered, teenagers have been neglected and require intensive support due to their undeveloped maturity. Lead actress Margot Robbie stated that the film’s aim is to subvert expectations and give audiences “the thing you didn’t know you wanted.”
NOTE: In June 2023, a “Barbie” French poster went viral for including the tagline “Elle peut tout faire. Lui, c'est juste Ken.”, which literally translates to “She can do everything. He’s just Ken.” However, ken is the verlan slang term for the f-word in French, while c’est (“he is”) is a homophone for sait (“he knows how”), meaning the tagline could be read as “She can do everything. He just knows how to f***.” Analysts concluded that it was likely the pun was intentional, as the slang term is common knowledge among French speakers, though Warner Bros. would neither confirm nor deny whether this was the case.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.