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  • Writer's pictureMatt Conway

Barbie: Review

I know many were trepidatious about the prospects of a “Barbie” film. How could a filmmaker transform a corporate product known for its superficiality into a fully-realized feature? Thanks to the incisive voices of writer/director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach, “Barbie” rises to heights few could have predicted.

I admit that I am not particularly surprised, as I have always harbored a strong affinity toward Gerwig’s work. The actress-turned-writer/director stole the spotlight during the 2000s indie mumblecore wave before creating creative collaborations with Baumbach. The two, who are now life partners, conceived some of my favorite films of the 2010s, whether it was the spirited coming-of-age comedy “Frances Ha” or the screwball farce “Mistress America.”

Gerwig and Baumbach are the perfect pair to recontextualize “Barbie” within our modern landscape. They brilliantly explore the falsehoods of perfection the Barbie brand exemplifies inside the confines of a glamorous, infectiously charming romp that packs a deceptively potent punch.

The high-wire balancing act “Barbie” executes is a remarkable feat. Gerwig cleverly lures viewers in by starting us in Barbie’s chic and aggressively photogenic world. The film’s luminous colors, luxurious sets, sun-kissed imagery and poppy soundtrack act as expressive tools for capturing Barbie’s whimsical dreamscape. Barbie’s fantasy society also features another significant twist from the real world — a reversal of patriarchy where women are universally in charge. “Barbie’s” central protagonist, the doll known as Superficial Barbie, basks in the comfort of this seemingly utopian community. That is until existentialism and other human traits begin to possess her once-idealistic existence. Following this discovery, Superficial Barbie and the love-sick Beach Ken embark on an adventure to the real world.

As expected, Barbie endures a seismic culture shock during this transition. Abrasive sexism and corporate commercialization run amuck on Earth, simultaneously disturbing Barbie and uplifting Ken, who becomes entranced by the culture’s embrace of traditionalist ideas.

Ruminations on inequitable gender roles, broken societal standards and patronizing products may appear evident at first glance, but Gerwig and Baumbach approach these topics with more nuance than what shows on the surface. Both exhibit a firm grasp on human dynamics, developing each character and concept with an eye for authentic revelations. At the same time, the film is never dour in its pursuits. The satirical tone generates countless uproarious chuckles from these finite observations.

From its female perspective, “Barbie” delivers scathing and refreshingly emphatic indictments. The arcs of Superifical Barbie and the human counterparts she meets along the way, including a mom dealing with her teenage daughter growing up, dig into the heavy burdens placed on women. So many of our culture and societal standards establish the weighty expectation of perfection on women, emphasizing this warped image that women must excel in some areas while being submissive in others. “Barbie” loudly denounces this ideal. The screenplay is equally sharp and assertive, formulating declarative statements that resonate with genuine truth.

I was impressed by the attention to detail in infusing these ideals within the characters. Not only does Superficial Barbie undergo a journey for self-ownership amidst a wave of sinister influences, but the human dynamic between mother Gloria and her daughter Sasha is equally well-established. I also think the film eventually balances its critiques of the Barbie brand with a sense of appreciation for it. The dolls are by no means a gold standard in depicting womanhood, although they do communicate an uplifting message that women can accomplish anything they set their minds to.

On the male side of things, there has been an outcry from irritating internet pundits that “Barbie” is sexist. In my opinion, people who make these remarks do so out of propping up their own chauvinist agenda without actually engaging with the film’s text. Does the movie make some comedic jabs at male shortfalls? Sure, and I would argue many of these jokes are equally humorous and sincere (the “Godfather” bit was made for me).

That said, the movie shows a similar compassion for men as it does for women. Beach Ken and his Ken friends inevitably become prisoners of patriarchial preachings, forced to live up to a heroic image that enforces leading the charge and sweeping romantic partners off their feet. This standard is equally absurd. “Barbie” wisely understands the unrealistic benchmarks plaguing men, with many transforming into toxic figures pursuing ideals dictated by dated tropes rather than a personal vision. As the Kens eventually realize, men can be emotionally vulnerable and follow personal goals outside the life they are groomed for.

Even with these introspective ideals, “Barbie” is still an extravagant crowd-pleaser. Showstopping music numbers, laugh-out gags, and well-earned tugs at the heartstrings populate the film’s brisk 114-minute runtime.

Stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling play a big part in nailing the film’s blending of sensibilities. Robbie showcases her movie star magnetism throughout, carefully peeling away the Barbie doll artifice in an emotionally raw and beautifully conveyed performance. Gosling may be synonymous with solemn dramatic roles, yet his buoyant, goofball energy here makes him a real scene-stealer as the blissfully simple-minded Beach Ken. The supporting cast, which features a who’s who of well-known celebrities, is also well-equipped to execute their comedic portrayals. Perhaps the standout of “Barbie’s” cast is America Ferrara, who delivers warmth and power in equal measure as a mom who connects with Barbie. Don’t be surprised if Ferrara, Robbie and Gosling receive some award attention by the year’s end.

“Barbie” is a showstopper in every sense. I would be hard-pressed to think of a film this year that I took more delight in watching and generated so many glowing responses from audiences. As the marketing materials proudly tout, this film will please lovers and detractors of the “Barbie” brand alike.


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