After surfing on a tidal wave of hot-pink publicity, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie has caused one hell of a splash, earning the biggest opening weekend ever for a woman-directed film and leaving Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer behind in its sparkly dust. This sort of ceiling-smashing success should be applauded.
However, once the haze of hype finally clears, perhaps we’ll realize something: the Barbie movie is just not that good.
There’s certainly a lot to admire here, most obviously the impeccable production design of Barbieland, a gorgeously detailed bit of worldbuilding. This is a gaudy utopia ruled by a multitude of Barbies, an inversion of our real-world patriarchy.
Life in plastic is fantastic for our lead Barbie (Margot Robbie) until a sudden existential crisis forces her to come to the real world. A love-sick Ken (Ryan Gosling) gratefully tags along.
It’s a promising premise with the potential to be a sharp social satire, similar to Ira Levin’s ‘The Stepford Wives’. Unfortunately, Barbie has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It screams its already obvious message at you as if convinced the audience cannot fathom subtext. America Ferrara’s sermon about the difficulties of womanhood may be passionately delivered but doesn’t say anything we haven’t heard a hundred times before. And neither does the film.
The humour’s not as smart as it seems to think it is. When the film is not being smugly self-aware, it stoops to bawdy innuendo, such as a juvenile gag with the Kens “beaching each other off,” or clunky pop culture references (a gag about Zack Snyder’s Justice League lands with a thud). The comedy that does work is largely thanks to the incredibly game performances of both Margot Robbie and, in particular, Ryan Gosling, who gives us a himbo for the ages as Ken.
Gerwig, the acclaimed filmmaker behind Ladybird and Little Women, is clearly having a ball playing in this larger sandbox, stuffing the film with cineliterate references (there are nods to everything from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Jacques Tati’s Playtime). But, tonally, it’s all over the place: the ‘Real World’ swings from being naturalistic to almost as cartoonishly heightened as Barbieland. The plot, meanwhile, seems a bit scattershot, with Will Ferrell’s antagonistic Mattel boss and army of suits getting lost in the candy-colored melee.
Ultimately, if judged as a toy-based tie-in, the Barbie movie is a lot bolder than anyone should have the right to expect. But, given the talent involved (and of course, the manic hype), it’s hard not to feel that the packaging promised more than the product.
A sugary, feminist confection that’s spoon-fed throughout… Barbie’s heavy-handed screenplay diminishes its smart set-up and set design.