Everything in the life of the Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) is perfect: her morning shower (sans water), her heart-shaped waffle and her pastel-coloured car which goes perfectly with her pastel-coloured wardrobe. Her friends include, but are not limited to, Doctor Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbie, Nobel-prize Winner Barbie and President Barbie. Every day in Barbieland is perfect!
But then, Barbie suddenly asks “Do you guys ever think about dying?” in the middle of a giant blowout party, completely killing the vibe (we’ve all been there). Suddenly, things are not so perfect any more; the (non-existent) shower water is cold, the waffle burns in the toaster and she falls on the way down to her car. And, crucially, her feet have gone flat!
This sends our beloved life-sized toy on a quest to find out what exactly has gone wrong in the real world and, more importantly, on a quest for her purpose. Ken (Ryan Gosling) goes with her because, after all, what is he without Barbie?
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is already this summer’s most talked about film, thanks to a very different picture coming out at the same time. The trailers have been somewhat vague on what Barbie is really about, but part of the fun is seeing the plot and story unfold so perfectly chaotically. Gerwig masterfully balances and navigates the different tones and moods within Barbie, which is both an ode to being a woman and a slapstick-heavy comedy.
It’s almost impossible to convey just how delightfully weird Barbie is. It’s clearly designed as a laugh-out-loud comedy that aims high, but mostly chooses a low-brow approach to its rather heavy themes, and that’s a compliment. Gerwig never talks down to her audience, proving that you can still deliver a powerful message with plenty of humour to help the medicine go down.
Most of Gerwig’s filmography, both as a director and an actress, has really focused on what it means to be a woman, and in that respect Barbie is a straight-up masterpiece, Gerwig’s Magnum Opus. Barbie's heavy politics will certainly prove divisive, especially since Gerwig isn’t being very subtle about them (and nor should she be) but Gerwig’s razor-sharp wit and style make Barbie a winner.
Margot Robbie is a perfect Barbie, and Gerwig knows that too. Helen Mirren narrates the film and, in one of the many meta layers of the picture, makes a note about the real Robbie’s casting. The meta-elements and Gerwig’s overwhelmingly self-aware style might grate on some people and it can feel a little overpowering, but it’s hard to imagine a more bold and audacious way to make a movie about such a controversial toy. Barbie is either a timeless, juvenile icon, or has set feminism back 50 years – as a character in the film notes – but somehow, in Barbie, the toy becomes a bit of both.
While Barbie is all about, well, Barbie, it’s Ryan Gosling’s Ken who turns out to be the scene-stealer in the film. Gosling has always been an underrated comedic actor, but as Ken, he’s allowed to turn it all the way up to 11 and the film is all the better for it. Ken’s arc is just as important as Barbie’s, and a much more uncomfortable one too, as Ken struggles with his sense of self-worth next to his literally perfect, but still platonic, companion.
Will Ferrell plays the CEO of Mattel and despite a few funny jokes that fully take the piss out of the company, his character feels the most expendable. Every time Gerwig cuts to him, the film comes to a screeching, unnecessary halt. It feels particularly jarring since the 108 minute film is otherwise perfectly paced and packed with action and jokes.
Ultimately though, Gerwig hits the nail on the head with Barbie’s journey and really draws out the essence of what it’s like to be a woman. In an inspired, if a little heavy, dialogue, America Ferrera’s human recounts all the ways you’re wrong if you’re a woman. You have to constantly be “extraordinary” as she notes.
Barbie constantly has bigger, juicier ideas bubbling just underneath the surface and Gerwig occasionally lifts the lid to show us these, but first and foremost, Barbie is a hugely enjoyable summer comedy, with real heart and wisdom at its core. Gerwig proves herself to be more than capable of handling huge studio blockbusters while still bringing loads of character and personality into her work.
Barbie is Gerwig’s weirdest, funniest and most bonkers film to date. Within the studio system, we should all be very grateful it exists.
Barbie is in cinemas from 21 July.