Only her third film, filmmaker Greta Gerwig pulls off an amazing balancing act with “Barbie,” a long-in-gestation project that in a previous iteration was meant to be scripted by “Juno”’s Diablo Cody with Amy Schumer set to star. While that project would’ve been its own different thing, the version we have features Gerwig somehow managing to be surprisingly faithful to Barbie’s lore and history while still being very much a Greta Gerwig film, a continuation of her films “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” that seem to be in conversation with each other.
In the world of Barbieland, Barbie (Margot Robbie) and her fellow Barbies all seem to be living in an idyllic state, with no problems of any kind. But one day something is off, Barbie senses a bit of monotony, and finally, thoughts of death encroach on her utopian lifestyle. When she gets flat feet, it’s a sign, and she visits Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) to learn that she must embark on a journey to the real world (which they know about!) to find what is wrong with the girl who plays with her.
Cowriting with her husband Noah Baumbach, Gerwig and a deep bench of actors have all the fun that can be had on this project, leaving it all on the screen. The script gives some actors their best material, and the film is not afraid to be deep and deeply silly. It can be polemic, and then a screwball comedy, a musical throwback, and then a ’90s indie arthouse film, all with in a couple of scenes. It shouldn’t work but it holds together, a testament to the amazing trust Gerwig and her performers have with each other, willing to look ridiculous while peeling at something meaningful.
Charm and cheer
Margot Robbie embodies the titular character with charm and cheer but has ample opportunity to flex her Best Actress nominee chops in several scenes that see Barbie having the shades drawn from her eyes, experiencing confusion, pain, the crushing of her self-esteem, a general dissolution of her entire sense of self. Ryan Gosling is Ken, and this role seems to have unlocked something in him. The commitment is so admirable, his press tour has been almost half the fun. It’s almost method acting.
Gosling’s shown his facility for comedy before (notably “Crazy Stupid Love” and “The Nice Guys”) but this should put paid to any notion that it’s not one of his strengths. Other cast members include America Ferrara, Ariana Greenblatt, Will Ferrell, Issa Rae, Michael Cera, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Dua Lipa, Simu Liu, Hari Nef and Rhea Perlman.
Barbieland is a sight to behold: scale versions of Barbie’s dream house, stickers on the inside of the refrigerator, clothes that magically appear on Barbie’s body: the production design and prop departments truly outdid themselves. Asides about Pregnant Barbie Midge, Skipper and the various, very specific outfits show that Gerwig et al are not being ironic or coy about the source material: they celebrate what Barbie meant to generations and explore what that place is today, and it’s big of Mattel to allow themselves to be lampooned after a fashion. The reveal that there are no women in Mattel’s executive board is expected but still effective, but subtle things like Will Ferrell’s CEO character never getting named lingers longer.
Barbie’s rude awakening in the real world plays just about how you’d expect: the patriarchy and gender inequality touch off a series of examinations, within and without, about one’s purpose and place. It’s in these tonal shifts where Gerwig uses her grab bag of influences, from the Jacques (Demy and Tati) to Powell & Pressburger. Just as arresting as a big musical number in some imagined space is a quiet scene at a bus stop or park bench, Barbie almost literally touching grass and marveling at the natural world.
There can be a slapstick-y chase in the bullpen of Mattel and then a cutesy montage as the characters travel between realms.Endearing as well is how the humans (Ferrara and Greenblatt) are in turn inspired and affected by meeting actual Barbie, culminating in a speech Ferrara delivers that is the equivalent to Laura Dern in “Marriage Story” (written by Baumbach) and Saoirse Ronan in Gerwig’s “Little Women.”
The delicate balancing act of being a woman in the world gets its mirror in Gerwig’s own tightrope walk with “Barbie,” but she handles it with the grace, humor and big beating heart that have since become her signature.