- Hans Weber
- December 1, 2023
‘Barbie’ movie review: Ryan Gosling steals the show in surreal Mattel satire
A plastic doll ventures from Barbieland into the real world after an existential crisis in Barbie, which opens in Prague cinemas and worldwide this weekend. This splashy take on the Mattel toy offers plenty of colorful fun and enough laugh-out-loud moments to carry the story, but also some heavy-handed satire that stops the film dead in its tracks.
Directed by Greta Gerwig from a script co-written with Noah Baumbach, Barbie stars Margot Robbie as the “stereotypical” titular doll: a resident of Barbieland who doesn’t eat or drink or have genitals, and magically floats from her Dreamhouse to the Star Vette to a plastic Malibu beach set with rock-hard sand and waves.
Barbie is a plastic toy, after all, in the same way as the characters in The Lego Movie… her world is just a little less amenable. She lives alongside a variety of other Barbies (played by Emma Mackey, Hari Nef, Nicola Coughlan, Dua Lipa, Alexandra Shipp, Issa Rae, and others) and Kens (Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and even John Cena) and even some side characters (Michael Cera‘s Alan and Emerald Fennell‘s Midge) in a perfect existence, breaking into song and dance every dawn.
Until it isn’t so perfect, and Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie finds herself in an existential crisis and having thoughts of death. But what might have been an interesting Groundhog Day setup about reliving the same day over and over is instead externalized, as the rough-handled Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) tells Robbie’s character that it’s actually a child who is playing with her in the real world who is having the issues.
So Barbie heads into that real world of Venice Beach through a series of magical vehicles, with Gosling’s Ken in tow. But while Barbie doesn’t exactly find the answer to her existential crisis through teenage Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) and her mother (America Ferrera), Ken finds a brand new world of patriarchy that he can bring back to Barbieland.
Gosling effortlessly steals the show as Ken, and his heel turn as a dudebro leader, complete with Jake Paul wardrobe and climactic dance-off with Liu, highlight the movie. But he’s also, surprisingly, playing a fully-realized character full of flaws and desire who goes through a tangible arc during the course of the film. In other words, this Ken is Barbie‘s most interesting character.
All the Barbies, on the other hand – including Robbie’s lead – are smart and confident and successful and happy and beautiful and and so, so boring. Only Ferrera’s mom, who yearns of recapturing the magic of spending time with her daughter, has any kind of engaging character motivation.
Until the very end, when Barbie decides that it should maybe give its lead character something to do after all, and invents an existential crisis for Stereotypical Barbie of her very own. In a five-minute white void sequence that recalls the finale of The Matrix Reloaded, Merovingian-like Barbie creator Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) explains the meaning of life to her creation, and the audience.
Barbie is also filled with screeching wall-to-wall indictments of the patriarchy, explained through dialogue but never convincingly depicted within the narrative. Even the patriarchy-embodied Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell) is a big ol’ lovable doofus and never any kind of true threat.
But critics taking all the patriarchy-bashing at face value really aren’t giving Gerwig and Baumbach enough credit for the depth of their multi-layered story. Despite all the noise at a surface level, this Barbie movie is really a heartfelt plea for equal rights and representation of the Kens, the truly repressed people in the world of the film.
After seven Transformers movies and a few G.I. Joes, here, finally, is one for the girls… or is it? Barbie is an unusually surreal summer blockbuster that all audiences should be able to enjoy, and even if a muddled message sometimes gets in the way, there too much fun to be had in Barbieland to dismiss this one.