Monday, June 24, 2024

How “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) lives in Barbie Land mirrors the way people play with dolls in real life. When she drinks or showers, she mimes the act – there is no liquid. She does not walk downstairs, she floats. All Barbies have vocations while looking perfect. They also believe that their progress has transformed the “Real World” (the human sphere) into a better place. When our Barbie begins to malfunction by experiencing existential dread, “Weird Barbie” (comic genius Kate McKinnon) offers the antidote: a journey to the Real World to find the sad person who is playing with her and fix the portal between their worlds. Barbie is reluctant to leave the pink paradise, but does so to stop the unsettling changes in her appearance and personality. Her beau, Ken (Ryan Gosling), stows away in Barbie’s convertible and accompanies her on the trip. Their differing Real World experiences have profound effects on Barbie Land’s denizens and leads to a struggle over the future of their home. Real World mother and daughter Gloria (America Ferrara) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) add to what happens in Barbie Land.

Director Greta Gerwig, whose cinematic roots are back in the days of mumblecore, co-wrote the classic-Mattel-doll-inspired fantasy with frequent collaborator director Noah Baumbach. While Gerwig, the force behind “Lady Bird” (2017) and “Little Women” (2019), may not have a signature style, her films center emotion and female journeys of self-discovery, and her latest is more of that, while the Kens’ dynamic musical numbers toward the end denote a male identity crisis. This first live-action Barbie film is not, as some may assume, for kids, but more for the teenagers and adults who have played with the doll in the past and the curious filmgoer wondering what Gerwig could cook up from a mass-produced commercial product.

Gerwig leverages the sugary superficial world of Barbie to express discontent with disenfranchisement on a personal and societal level – those looking for lighthearted laughs, think again. Early in the first act, Gerwig punctures the illusion of perfection as Kens are rendered insecure rivals vying for Barbies’ attention; and ridicule is commonplace for any doll who is not in mint condition. Stereotypical Barbie is compelled to act when she fears losing her pretty privilege, and the Real World forces Barbie to confront the disappointment that Barbies do not help women. Gerwig tackles the controversies about body image and consumerism, but overall the Real World is not all bad, though Gerwig makes some nods to post-2016 presidential election problems with the erection of a wall and destabilization of the Barbies’ governing bodies. 

Gerwig’s “Barbie” is ambitious in its aim at traditional and contemporary gendered roles, but when Gerwig diverts focus from Stereotypical Barbie to other characters, there’s a noticeable lack of depth – the animated dolls are too doll-like. Ken gets a lot of screen time, but his ultimate transformation into a charismatic leader feels like we missed an epiphany. Still, Gerwig’s “Barbs” targets social norms smartly and rides the edgy line between realms and what is genuine and real and what is not.