Full disclosure: I love Greta Gerwig. Lady Bird makes me ugly-cryface with gratitude every time I watch it. Her version of Little Women was revelatory and infuriatingly perfect (a writer yet to sell a screenplay notes). She was and is the perfect choice for the project, and when you factor in that longtime partner Noah Baumbach, most recently the architect of true-love-gets-demolished-by-an-army-of-miniature-hammers character study Marriage Story, you’ve got a pair of brilliant artists who are also likely willing to take bullets for one another, crafting this once-in-a-generation, high-concept, high-wire-walk blockbuster. I was lucky enough to see it in a big comfy theater, and will be seeing it theatrically again and again until my adrenal glands serve me a restraining order.
Barbie is many things: a dopamine-inked love letter to lacrimal Americana, a faux-fur-clad primal scream, a skyscraper-sized heart of pulsing pink neon, and the cinematic equivalent of an exploded diagram depicting little girls becoming little women (shut up) with playground-bruised knees, first puckers in Mom’s vanity while wearing Mom’s favorite sticky scarlet lipstick, and the watershed moment of intimate muscles awakening in a literal flood every woman seems able to recall with uncanny visceral detail.
There are shades of…no joke… My Fair Lady, Pinocchio, The Stepford Wives (novel and *both* films), The Matrix, The Doom Generation, Room (think Abrahamson not Wiseau), French coming-of-age horror masterpiece Raw and, I shit you not, Vanilla fucking Sky, sprinkled around for both momentum and earnest heart-prickles. On the brilliantly curated soundtrack, Nicki Minaj stomps in as the perfect badass bitch incarnation of our heroine, Lizzo purrs an adorable running narration over bubbly, intoxicating beats, and Sam Smith ditches his usual fainting-couch mesmerism for a legit electro-banger.
Oh, you want to know the actual plot of this thing? Silly child, FINE. Deep breath, and…
Barbies (plural) …with endless permutations, shapes, colors and levels of accomplishment in their incarnations… populate Barbieland, an idyllic, pleasantly surreal town that mimics Los Angeles itself, with mountains located a brief sprint from the Beach (Beach, always capitalized, serves as a polysemic noun, a verb, and a pants-pissingly goofy verbal gag where A-list actors unwittingly argue about who is going to jerk off whom). Margot Robbie plays “Stereotypical Barbie”, which is to say the tall, blonde, sinewy, arch-footed prototype that most recall at the mere mention of Mattel’s biggest gift to the history of dolls.
Speaking of which, the opening sequence, an on-the-nose homage to the beginning of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, had me wheezing and doubled over as little girls onscreen violently throttled their porcelain-domed baby dolls to pieces, after a visitation from Monolith Barbie shatters their paradigm about all things Doll. If Robbie didn’t lower her enormous shades and wink at the camera, I might have died inside. Thankfully she indulges us.
Back in the present, Robbie’s seemingly identical days are interrupted when, during the nightly disco rager, she openly admits to having a sudden obsessive thought about death, followed by a hysterically loud record player scratch that nearly triggered my mosh-pit-honed tinnitus.
Her coterie of Benetton Barbies understandably panic, and things go from bad to worse as Robbie’s high-heel-molded feet flatten with dual crunching sounds, maudlin thoughts crowd her otherwise carefree mind, and it all culminates in a scene that William Peter Blatty could have written from beyond the grave: Robbie stiffening and bending into painful contortions that end with her totally prone and groaning, Nietzsche-like, about very un-Barbie things.
A flurry of clever, brilliant, weird, funny, heartachy (this is an impossibly-successful running motif) scenes follow, where Weird Barbie…Kate McKinnon was fucking BORN to play this broken clockwork of a woman, hair spiked in fifty different lengths, Crayon pressed so deep it left facial scars, her hip sockets yanked in The Real World (explanation forthcoming) by a child until she can only rest in a series of giddily disturbing splits… explains that Barbie must travel beyond a membrane separating the Barbies, Kens, Midges, Skippers and the singular Allen …Michael Cera literally jump kicks the scenery in this inspired lunatic role… from you and me and every other flesh-and-blood non-doll. Why? Because one of us has been depicting one of them …in this case it’s Robbie’s version of Barbie… as a pessimistic, emotionally conflicted Aphrodite. Virus-like, this effect has the potential to turn all of Barbieland into a dystopia fallen off the axis of positive self-image the doll is (and actually was, apparently) meant to engender in the young girls that dressed and played with her.
So off she sets for our imperfect, complicated world, though happily never depicted as some gritty, whiplash-inducing hellscape like writers less self-aware than Gerwig and Baumbach would have fallen prey to creating. Reality is messy and reality is layered, but things are also mercifully self-aware, and when the film’s politics that have apparently enraged human sinus-infection Ben Shapiro enter the story at full patriarchal height, it feels earned.
I have not mentioned Ryan Gosling’s performance as Stereotypical Ken yet, because I wanted to savor how idiotic it would have been NOT to cast him for this.
Impossibly handsome, sculpted like Rodin took poppers between chisel swipes, and sporting that oh-you-motherfucker grin that is always a millimeter away from bursting into hysterical laughter, Gosling shotguns Ken’s stunted, suffocated, second-fiddle-to-Barbie’s-soprano energy so breathlessly that I swear the goddamn movie throbbed 3D several times, in a 2D presentation. His is a b-story that culminates in a third act I refuse to spoil; but suffice it to say that this man who “can Beach” …and is more obsessed with horses than Tarantino is with toes, is constantly told, to his perfect face, that he was never the point, exists as an accessory with a pulse, and will never be more than the shadow of an identity cast on the Platonic cave wall clawed in the side of a pink plastic mountain gains a frightening level of narcissism in direct opposition to Barbie’s catharsis through honest connections with women that defined themselves through childhood interactions with her.
Ken absorbs a near-seizure-inducing flurry of maleness, stumbled upon during his first Real World time apart from Barbie and, to put it bluntly, the experience fucks him up. Gerwig visually broadcasts Ken’s psychological transformation via the spiky, gnarled hairdo and dark-rimmed eyes of an anime character pushed over the edge. Barbie’s playmate becomes her nemesis, the plot thickens and wobbles, sometimes threatening to cram too many ideas into the frame, yet mercifully balancing most, if not all of them for a satisfying and surprisingly moving denouement.
Special mention must go to America Ferrera’s portrayal of harried Mattel office worker Gloria, who is the closest thing we get to a human audience surrogate, apart from her character’s daughter Sasha, played gamely by Arianna Greenblatt. Much praise has been heaped on Ferrera’s barnburner of a third act speech, and personally, I loved every spitfired cinder. Yes, it’s a little silly when a theater crowd applauds an actor who is nowhere near the screening room, but I was clapping too, so shut up (again).
Please, if you will, allow me a sidetrack that I promise to braid back into the review proper.
Pride Month, June of 2023, sucked. The powers that be have made Culture War madness into their meat and drink, turned hate into the base coat of paint for whatever hideous lair they plan to haunt. Harmless queer things like tuck-friendly ADULT bathing suits sold at Target were demonized by hypocritical closet-cases like Matt Walsh and Steven Crowder. Karens laying low to lick their manager-bruised claws took flight like shit-smeared phoenixes to, once again, “protect the children.” And of course, we the LGBTQIA+ …your author falls beneath the “B”… are now being labeled “groomers.”
A shitshow welled, roared, flooded. People have been attacked, injured, killed. Again. Laws that give closets fangs and retractable claws to force all non-straights back into their choking shadows are being ratified every couple of weeks here in America.
I promise to wind this thread up here, and get back to why the Barbie movie slaps, why you should go see it, and why I’m arguing for a new lens through which to view this particular blockbuster as a damn entertaining delivery of objectively good things.
It’s simple, actually. A big loud pricey crowd-pleasing popcorn flick made me feel safe in public again, if only for a couple of hours. Throngs of young people laughed and clapped and exchanged smiles with me in the lobby. Hate was kicked in the nuts, hard, by the power of compassion delivered with surround-sound and million-dollar smiles.
The pounding disco beats; the breakneck parade of earnest camp; the gasp-inducing dialogue where Barbie tells a group of sexist male construction workers that she and Ken literally “don’t have genitals,” and how that is the setup to a gobsmacking payoff seconds before the closing credits… this impossible creation is a celebration of the clusterfuck that is human existence made bearable and even bittersweet through a deft rejection of irony and cynicism. You may balk, or even buck, but you do so under a painstakingly-crafted saddle that feels like the long-denied hug you so desperately needed, and what else is there to do but happily gallop into a Mattel-perfect sunset?