Throughout Barbie, two completely different movies jockey for prominence. In one, director Greta Gerwig (who co-writes with her partner, Noah Baumbach) fashions the iconic doll into a walking, talking instrument of satirical destruction. The other is a broad, obvious Message Movie, in which characters carve out time for impassioned speeches, replete with tears and clenched fists. For a while, there is a hope the two vibes might co-exist, forming a genuinely funny comedy with socially relevant things to say. Unfortunately, Barbie’s final act goes too hard for the Message, losing its comedic momentum in the process. The result is a great movie, trapped within the body of a pretty good one.
Gerwig and Baumbach build the bulk of their story in Barbieland, which plays like a cross between a matriarchal commune and Mattel’s vision of Heaven. All the disparate Barbies are driven, independent career women. They stack the Supreme Court and occupy the Oval Office.
Meanwhile, the Ken dolls live like vain, vacuous surfer bros. They strike cool poses on the beach and crash into plastic waves. Everything seems blissful, but the first hints of emotional gray are beginning to spread across this canvas: Classic Ken (Ryan Gosling) harbors a Pepe le Pew-level crush on Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), the most popular version of the doll. As with her sisters, this Barbie is emotionally self-sufficient, so Ken gets shunted to the friendzone. He tries to swallow his feelings, but an existential crisis is already brewing.
This burgeoning self-awareness comes to a head during Barbie’s nightly dance party. Amidst the smiling and grooving, she blurts out a heavy question: “Do you guys ever think about death?” The record scratches to silence, and everyone stares in slack-jawed terror. Barbie covers her tracks, but the damage is apparent: Her daily routine, once a model of Stepford perfection, is now an anxiety-laden mess.
Barbie confides in her tribe, and they send her to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon). She’s a weathered, shamanistic Barbie who was once graffitied and misshapen by a belligerent little girl. Now, Weird Barbie functions as a village elder, navigating the dolls through any emotional and spiritual turbulence. Her diagnosis of Stereotypical Barbie is simple: Someone is playing with Barbie in the Real World, and their feelings of dread and doubt are seeping into Barbie’s consciousness.
With that, Barbie heads to the Real World, hoping to find the girl in crisis. Ken tags along, as this might be his best chance to prove himself a hero. Thus begins the film’s Fish Out of Water midsection, in which Barbie and Ken wander around Los Angeles. They are greeted with snarky cynicism, and all these snickers and stares shake them to the core.
Matters get worse when Barbie learns that modern girls see her as nothing more than a sexist trope. She had hoped to be a symbol of female empowerment, but it seems the opposite attitude has taken hold. Her existential gloom only deepens.
As this crisis grows, we also meet a host of real-world characters. Gloria (America Ferrara) is a middle-aged woman who’s grown despondent over a deteriorating relationship with her daughter (Ariana Greenblatt). Conveniently, Gloria works at Mattel, and channels her melancholy into concept drawings, depicting Barbie as a deep well of depression and self-doubt. It’s not long before Barbie makes Gloria as the source of her emotional malaise.
Simultaneously, Ken’s dive into reality teaches him about the patriarchy. He learns that simply being a man comes with a host of unexpected advantages. (He wanders into a hospital with the expectation of performing surgery. “I’m a man,” he shrugs.) Ken takes this misogynistic hubris back into Barbieland, which quickly gets rebranded as Kenland. This relegates the Barbies into submissive arm candy, and the Kens into arrogant, gaslighting bimbos. Kenland puts Barbie’s emotional and spiritual crisis at a crossroads: Can she save her world, and thus her soul? Or, is it even worth the heartache to battle a system that’s rigged against her?
If that sounds like a boatload of plot, you’re spot-on. The bludgeon of Barbie’s satire belies the deep ambition buried beneath it. The filmmakers clearly want this to be a cultural moment, or Zeitgeist Barbie. Gerwig and Baumbach take aim at systemic misogyny, the idiocy of the patriarchy, bro culture, and many other ripe targets. For the most part, their jokes land like hard punches.
At the same time, a film like Barbie offers temptation for speachiness. Most of the way, the filmmakers resist this temptation, and allow the humor to drive their points. But then, somewhere near the film’s final act, the script detonates into a preachy supernova. Ferrara launches into a monologue so big and fiery, it damn near brings the movie to a halt. From this point, Barbie becomes a cerebral examination of sentience and self-identity. The humor wanes, the story bogs, and we get at least two scenes too many.
It’s a damn shame, too. I love so much about Barbie. That starts with Robbie, who nails Stereotypical Barbie’s perky perfection. Then, when her smile falls as flat as her arches, Robbie makes her endearing and relatable. On the flip side, Gosling is clearly having a ball, playing Ken as a ripped, self-righteous doofus. Gosling is a smart actor, and the proof lies in how he plays a character who—to paraphrase a saying on the farm—is the intellectual equivalent of all hat and no cattle.
Gerwig also scores big on the supporting cast. McKinnon is hilarious as a mangled, world-weary Barbie. (She made me think of those mutilated neighbor dolls in Toy Story.) That goes ditto for Michael Cera, who’s perfectly cast as Allan, Ken’s dweeby best friend. The other Barbies and Kens are played by an assortment of recognizable people, and I won’t spoil the surprise of their cameos.
On that subject, Will Ferrell is a baffling presence, as Ferrara’s boss. While Gloria’s character feels like a very real person—and her speeches ring with truth—Ferrell’s bombastic character plays like something out of a Roald Dahl novel. His army of boot-licking sychophants don’t help, either. This makes Gerwig’s take on the Real World confusing: Is this a hard-bitten reality, or a fantastical Tim Burton movie?
In my reviews, I try to keep baseball metaphors to a minimum. It’s been a while, so let me cash this one in: Barbie is a stand-up double, but it could’ve and should’ve been a grand slam. Like in The Natural, where sparks rain onto the field. Don’t get that twisted: Barbie gets a lot of stuff right, and I’d still offer a strong recommendation. But, I can’t deny I also left the theater with a tinge of disappointment.
114 min. PG-13. In theaters.