Barbie is a witty, charming, and unexpectedly moving piece about identity and the paradoxical nature of the “perfect” woman. Those familiar with Greta Gerwig’s work won’t find this description surprising as the writer/director has demonstrated a deft hand in crafting mature storytelling that resonates intensely with modern women. Barbie is no exception, though it does stand as her most extravagant production yet.
Pink and perfect are the only ways to describe Barbie’s life. Though Greta Gerwig (with co-writer Noah Baumbach) hasn’t shied away from adding a few more vivid descriptions of their own to really round out her persona. Bright and Bubbly with a twist of emotional complexity is the idea here. Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) and her peroxided himbo “boyfriend” Ken (Ryan Gosling) embark on a bizarre quest to stop our pink heroine from changing into a “Weird Barbie”, but the duo run into the inevitabilities of growth when they enter and interact with the real world.
On the surface, this is a story about boundless optimism facing unfamiliar obstacles with seemingly no way to stop them. But it’s when our characters begin to lose against those obstacles that Gerwig reminds us of the depth her stories usually take.
Margot Robbie’s performance begins with a naive but endlessly kindhearted protagonist, whose conflicts with the real world color her with all the human strangeness she’s never experienced; despair, sorrow, defeat, anger, fear, etc. But don’t let the negative emotions fool you; Barbie, the movie, is anything but a downer.
This is a film that can’t stop making jokes, and everyone gets a turn as both comedian and the inevitable punchline. Characters often speak with their feet firmly in their mouths, and get to raise eyebrows at the inhabitants of Barbieland, the perfectly pink homeworld of the Barbies and Kens…and Allen (Michael Cera). Even the unseen narrator (Helen Mirren) chimes in on occasion to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. Scene after scene we’re treated to a balance of character wit and some childish puns, but none of it feels mean-spirited nor out of line with the movie’s tone.
From Lady Bird to Little Women, Gerwig has always explored characters’ growth out of immature naivete. Even with Barbie, it’s an emotional arc that feels earned and it’s a relief to see that Gerwig has stayed true to her past work in writing nuanced feminine characters struggling with identity and pushing against unfair expectations.
However, the expression of said message doesn’t always match the film’s tone. Sometimes the pacing grinds to a halt so we can be reminded of the point, and while the film never pontificates it does come close to preachy at times. Most notably, one of the main characters unleashes a diatribe against the world of men for which she feels she’s constantly performing. Though it’s an honest and cathartic comment on motherhood and femininity, the scene suppresses the film’s other qualities, which could have been used to weave it into the more satirical tone of the film.
“Perhaps that’s the point,” I hear my critic’s voice saying, and perhaps he’s right. Gerwig isn’t known for losing the narrative in her scripts, and it’s this deft skill at balancing tone that drew audiences to her in the first place. If we look at the scene more optimistically one could see that because the point is so important that it’s allowed to reject the bombastic traits of the film; making certain the point comes across. But we’ll never know, and frankly, whether or not it was intended to be that way isn’t what’s important.
If the steady feed of humor, tranquil moments of existentialism, and elaborate production aren’t strong enough to get you to see Barbie, then you’re missing out on one of the most unique cinematic experiences of the year. Gerwig remains a genuine talent among modern screenwriters (along with her husband Baumbach) and Barbie marks a tremendous achievement for the artistry of cinema. You’ll leave the theater laughing and crying, possibly at the same time.