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Barbie ★★★★

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

Availability: Showing widely in theaters; streaming expected late October or November on HBO Max (longer after its theater release than most films because of its enormous box office success), in the UK likely on Sky-owned NOW in December or in January 2024; see JustWatch here for updated streaming availability.

Existential Barbie

“I wanted to make something anarchic and wild and funny and cathartic,” Oscar-nominated director and writer Greta Gerwig told a New York Times reporter. Though it may not be cathartic for everyone, Gerwig’s blockbuster hit “Barbie” is all that, and more. “Funny”—an inadequate word that English is saddled with—hardly does justice to a screenplay that may be the cleverest and, yes, funniest since the “Toy Story” series (1995- ), which also featured playthings that come to life. To Gerwig’s description, we would add “fascinating,” “complex,” “visually delightful” (today’s equivalent of “The Wizard of Oz”), “pathbreaking” and “transgressive.” Like Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons,” it’s an adult offering that’s accessible, on a different level, to children.


The screenplay may be the cleverest and, yes, funniest since the “Toy Story” series.


Barbie, the 1959 doll, comes on the scene in 1959 in a take-off on "2001: A Space Odyssey"

Gerwig touches all her bases in the opening to “Barbie,” a take-off on 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey," a scene at once hilariously funny, misleading, and prescient. It’s misleading (presumably intentionally) in that it suggests that the doll Barbie (introduced in 1959) was the cutting edge of the feminist revolution of the 1960s. Second-wave feminism had its origins in the Second World War, when women experienced the world of work as liberation, and passed their experiences on to their daughters. The Mattel company, and its product, Barbie, were followers, rather than leaders. It’s prescient, in that the anti-motherhood content of the scene (Barbie as liberator from the destinies of childbearing and child-rearing) anticipates the declining birthrates of the next half century that would characterize the developed world, East and West.


The Mattel company, and its product, Barbie, were followers, rather than leaders.


The final scene is funny, too, and counter-intuitive. One expects that Barbie is interviewing for a job, but instead she’s at a doctor’s office, being very human (Gerwig taps into the basic civilization myth of gods turning human). The narrative does not prepare us for the film’s last line, nor for Barbie’s relationship to Ken (Ryan Gosling, a charmingly malleable, insecure Ken). Based on our experience of Barbie and Ken, we can imagine the two getting hitched and having a family, but the film doesn’t take us along that path; it doesn’t make the couple. Indeed, despite the space the pair occupies in the story, it’s clear that Ken “is not Barbie’s ending.” (Perhaps, as happens on ABC’s “The Bachelorette,” Ken, having been rejected, will return in a sequel to rekindle the romance.) And while Barbieland is rendered in every shade of pink, there are no children in Barbieland, not even little girls.

Every day is the best day in Barbieland. Above, "Stereotypical Barbie" (a perfectly cast Margot Robbie) in her Dreamhouse.

Gerwig and her partner, co-writer Noah Baumbach ("White Noise," 2022), have a 4-year-old daughter, and the childless universe they’ve fictionalized may (cheap psychology to follow) be a product of their doubts about how two career-focused Hollywood types can handle at least 14 more years of dependency. They wouldn’t be the first. In part because of its apparent (emphasis on “apparent”—ambiguity is one of the film’s strengths) disdain for motherhood, right-wingers, among those who won’t find the firm “cathartic,” don’t like “Barbie.” The “pregnant Barbie,” we learn, was discontinued. (Stay for the credits, which show her and all the Barbies used in the production.)

Above the duo of Ken (a charming Ryan Gosling) and Barbie on their road trip to the real world, but Ken “is not Barbie’s ending.”


Co-writers Gerwig and Baumbach imagine societies in which women don’t need men, and men don’t need women.


Having created a world without children, Gerwig and Baumbach imagine societies in which women don’t need men, and men don’t need women. On the one hand we have Barbieland, on the other Ken’s (working-class) patriarchal, man-cave fantasy, centered around his Mojo Dojo Casa House—his makeover of Barbie’s Dreamhouse—and the pleasures of the “brewski beers” from the well-stocked (though too small, only holds a 6-pack) mini-fridge, the Barcalounger, a cowboy wardrobe, endless images of horses on the television, and male bonding, the last presented as a Battle on Malibu Beach (curiously unsettling echoes of the World War II D-Day Normandy invasion) and Busby-Berkeley-like, though all-male, synchronized dancing (for the cutting room floor).

Right, Barbie, is horrified

when she discovers she's

not perfect: here she

shows her girlfriends,

all named Barbie,

that her feet are flat.

If Barbieland isn’t into children, and the shared relationship with men they traditionally involve, surely it must celebrate work and working women. It does, and it doesn’t. Barbieland rather awkwardly combines all that pink high femininity (walking around on one’s toes without high heels) with a work-oriented gynocracy (ironic, since no one has genitals), where women do every job, from construction to serving as all the justices on the Supreme Court, while men, who live elsewhere (even Barbie doesn’t know where), hang out at the beach. That sounds liberating for the Barbies, but it’s not enough.

The world of work is not inevitably fulfilling, as we learn from Gloria, a “real” woman—reality is the film’s third world—who spends her time as a receptionist to the Mattel executives, making drawings of…Barbie, but Barbie with more than a touch of sadness and anxiety—human qualities. Work and family are not sufficient. Part of the problem for Barbie is that she’s a doll, with a rather limited notion of the good life: always pretty, always perfect, always happy, every day the best day.


Barbie asks the other Barbies, “Do you guys ever think about dying?”


Something is missing—for Gloria and, through Gloria, for Barbie, who somehow begins to channel Gloria’s real-world angst. The idea comes as a cosmic, and comic shock, with Barbie asking the other Barbies, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Enter Existential Barbie. And Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a witch-like, uglified outsider who decorates with the color green (!). She gets the picture and sends Barbie to the real world, mostly the beach world of Los Angeles, where the duo (Ken stows away in Barbie’s pink convertible) is almost as out of place—but funnier—than Tarzan in London or Bing Crosby in King Arthur’s court.

Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) offers Barbie a choice, or does she?


Ken's enchantment with patriarchy won’t sit well with Trump’s base, which will see their hypermasculinity being parodied.


It’s there in LA, in their separate adventures, that Ken and Barbie each discover something important: Ken becomes enchanted with patriarchy, a temporary transformation with some good jokes that, again, won’t sit well with Trump’s base, which will see their hypermasculinity being parodied. Barbie finds Mattel’s corporate headquarters—situated in LA’s soul-less Century City, with a nod to the world of Oz)—where the CEO (Will Farrell, a befuddled Wizard) and his corporate minions, a greedy and clueless bunch whose ideas of women might have sounded progressive in 1955, try desperately to get this human-looking Barbie “back in the box,” which is there in the board room. (It surprised us that Mattel went along with this critique of its corporate culture and its dolls, although there is a touching scene with Barbie’s real-life creator, Ruth Handel [Rhea Perlman], that makes up for some of the thrashing Mattel takes. That and Barbies now flying off the shelves.)

Will Ferrell is the Mattel CEO,

a befuddled Wizard in his

skyscraper Oz. Here with

a wide-eyed employee

(Connor Swindells).

In her LA Odyssey, Barbie first locates the girl she thinks is playing with her sadly, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a cynical “reality girl” middle-schooler who hates Barbies. Sasha will eventually appreciate her mother and Barbie (the “human” one), but her transformation into a thoughtful young person is less than convincing and somewhat beside the point—one of the film’s few weaknesses. In a script twist, it’s not Sasha but her mother, Gloria, the Mattel receptionist, who has looked to her child doll Barbie for solace.

The trio—Gloria, Sasha and Barbie—head to Barbieland. There, in the fantasy world of perfection, Gloria delivers an impassioned monologue (thanks to America Ferrera’s captivating embodiment of the IMperfect) that sets the table for the story’s modestly disappointing (in part because of its lack of ambiguity), on-the-cusp-of-therapeutic, resolution. Gloria’s (and then Barbie’s) revelation is that the best life—for men as well as women—is the ordinary life, with all its “human” emotions, feelings, male/female conflicts, and imperfections. (When Barbie, in tears, laments, “I’m not pretty anymore,” the narrator, Helen Mirren, comments, “Note to filmmakers: Margot Robbie is not the actress to get this point across.” True enough, but Robbie’s somewhat naïve, doll-like screen presence is “perfect” for the role.)

As brilliant as the script is, it would be too much to expect Gerwig and Baumbach to have the answer to the age-old problem of human happiness, which is what “Barbie” purports to offer. It’s enough that this gem of a film is, in a word, courageous: a sui generis, outside-the-box (like Barbie) tour de force, fondly and exquisitely executed, funny beyond words, a pleasure to watch from beginning to end, 2 hours of joy. Sitting in the theater watching “Barbie,” we don’t need Nicole Kidman, shilling for AMC Theatres, to tell us that this is what films “do.”


Date: 2023

Director: Greta Gerwig

Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Will Ferrell, Ariana Greenblatt, Helen Mirren, Rhea Perlman, Connor Swindells

Country: United States, United Kingdom

Language: English and Spanish (the latter not subtitled)

Runtime: 114 minutes

Other Awards: 2 wins and 1 other nomination to date

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Aug 05, 2023

Great review, except that the opening is a take-off on "2001", not "Planet of the Apes"!

Aug 06, 2023
Replying to

You are right, dtlars... We still like thinking of the giant Barbie as the Statue of Liberty but we concede (and updated the review). The listing of cast members as "2001 Girls" seals it. Thank you!

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