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There’s more to Barbie than just a send-up of corporate culture. Photo by Jaap Buitendijk

Maybe you saw the trailers for Barbie and, like me, you wondered just what this thing is. I’ve seen the movie now, and oh, let me tell you. Greta Gerwig’s film treatment does more than just acknowledge all the good and bad things that Barbie dolls have represented over the decades. It’s a whole-ass philosophical statement about being a woman in present-day society. The soundtrack features György Ligeti, Indigo Girls, and Billie Eilish, and the movie overflows with dance numbers and sets that feature more pink than you’ve ever seen in one place. It is likely the strangest Hollywood blockbuster you’ll see this year, and like The Lego Movie, it’s much more than the crass corporate product you might expect.

The film is set in Barbie Land, where most of the female dolls are named Barbie and all the male dolls are named Ken except for one named Allan (Michael Cera) — he’s confused, and so am I. Life is perfect for our Barbie (Margot Robbie) until her feet suddenly become flat unlike the other Barbies’ and she brings a dance party to a screaming halt by blurting out a random thought about death. She visits Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a doll whose hair has been burnt off and whose face is covered in permanent marker from her owner’s rough play. She counsels Barbie to visit our reality, find the girl who owns the doll version of her, and set her mind right. Otherwise, Barbie will start getting cellulite on her thighs.

Perhaps if I’d spent my childhood playing with Barbies, I might find the look of Barbie Land more familiar. As it is, the sight of a street full of life-size Barbie Dream Houses and surfaced with pink pavement is fairly mind-blowing. Gerwig and production designer Sarah Greenwood create a beachside town where the ocean waves are solid plastic like everything else. The commitment to Barbie-ness is absolute: No water comes out when she takes a shower, and she drives around in her convertible without looking at the road or touching the steering wheel. My favorite bit is in the real world, where Mattel’s designers toil away in doorless office cubicles that they can’t leave. The visuals are a big reason why the first part of the film feels like it’s shot from a cannon.

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The same level of imagination applies to the story by Gerwig and her partner and fellow filmmaker, Noah Baumbach. Ken (Ryan Gosling) follows Barbie into our reality, sees men running everything, and decides he’s tired of being a second-class citizen in his own world. He introduces the patriarchy into Barbie Land, and suddenly our blonde fashion-plate heroine has to save her own home, where the other Barbies have eagerly given up being doctors and astronauts to stand around in revealing outfits and hand their Kens beers. The Kens quickly move to rewrite the laws to marginalize the Barbies — sound familiar? Equally recognizable is Mattel’s CEO (Will Ferrell), a corporate self-proclaimed ally whose feminism runs shallow. “I’m the son of a mother, and the mother of a son,” he declares.

Gosling plays dumb here for once, and he does it really well, while Simu Liu plays effectively in the same vein as a fellow Ken who makes Ken jealous. Even so, no one steals this away from Robbie and her perfectly pitched comic turn. She walks in that overly precise way that you would imagine Barbie walking, and then later an existential crisis makes her sit on the fake grass and fall over sideways just like a doll would. Robbie frequently keeps that Barbie smile plastered on her face, but you can feel the terror of someone experiencing self-awareness for the first time. This might just be the performance of her career.

The storytelling turns clunky when the Barbies band together to take Barbie Land back. The all-male cadre of Mattel executives is a comic opportunity missed, too. Then again, the loose ends seem to fit a movie that’s all about the messiness of being a woman (and a man, too, for that matter). Barbie rescuing Ken from toxic masculinity is done as well as we could hope for, and when she meets Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), the real-life creator of Barbie dolls, Gerwig makes it feel like a spiritual encounter. The final line, too, is fantastic on a number of levels. If you think that a film this girly can’t also be thoughtful and complex, behold Barbie. After this, I know I’ll never look at a Barbie doll the same way again.

 

Barbie
Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Directed by Greta Gerwig. Written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. Rated PG-13.

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