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‘Barbie’ review: Greta Gerwig plays a bit too hard

By July 18, 2023No Comments6 min read
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken driving away from Barbieland

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Despite committed performances by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is less than fantastic.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a lot of things. It’s a love letter to classic cinema, from the magical otherworldly adventures in The Wizard of Oz to the dream sequences of Singin’ In the Rain and even the feverish self-indulgence of An American In Paris. With its pastels, hand-painted backgrounds, and observant costume design, Barbie is an artist’s dream as they’re allowed to play with format and scope in ways both old and new. Ryan Gosling gets to go big and broad with his humor as the emotionally fragile and easily swayed Ken to Margot Robbie’s Barbie. There are musical numbers, car chases, a pitstop in heaven, mothers and daughters, daughters and mothers, and Kate McKinnon riffing. It’s a boisterous, ambitious undertaking. But it ultimately fails due to a poorly paced script and ideas that work better on paper.

Margot Robbie plays “stereotypical Barbie” (the Barbie people might think of first when they hear the word “Barbie.”) She lives in the utopic Barbie Land, where every day is the best day ever. For her and her fellow Barbies, at least, who engage in beach time socializing, dance party socializing, and girls’ night socializing. Barbies, in their eyes, made the “real world” better and ended sexism, resulting in a self-satisfied society where Kens exist only to fawn over Barbies and play backup dancer. But Barbie experiences something of an existential hiccup — the “do you guys ever think about dying” will become synonymous with the film — and it sets her on a journey of self-exploration and discovery. 

Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, gets in between a brewing fight between two Kens, each played by Simu Liu and Ryan Gosling

“Do you guys ever think about dying?”

In these opening moments, the film flourishes because it is, quite frankly, stunning. In an era where VFX and CGI special effects fully dominate the medium, it’s refreshing to witness a film prioritizing practical effects and set building. Barbie’s Dream House is an architectural vision, replicating the actual toy houses with open-facing exteriors. From her wardrobe, which looks exactly like the packaging a Barbie’s clothes would be sold separately, to beaches with plastic waves, and hand-painted background scenery, the film boasts an uncanny surrealism with texture and purpose. 

Martin Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who also worked on the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon) weaves visual magic alongside Gerwig’s businesslike direction. Aside from some early moments in the real world, the picture casts an effervescent glow, heightening its marriage of the bizarre and the classical. Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, both set designers and decorators, apply a mid-century modernist approach to the architecture to further set this place as somewhere truly alien, yet familiar, even without the empty cartons of milk and engineless cars. Crucially, the artistry gives Barbie Land a sense of place and time even if that place and time is timeless. 

“You have to go to the real world.”

Despite the film’s vibrancy and penchant for visual humor — especially regarding the Kens — the script is uneven. Penned by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, the film sets off at a breakneck speed after its pastel prologue, promising a trim screenplay without excess. However, once in the Real World where we meet America Ferrera’s Gloria and her daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), playtime is officially over. Ferrera and Greenblatt do their best with a contrived storyline about a mother and daughter currently at odds, but it suffers from plastic pacing. 

Barbie and a few friends dressed in pink exit a van on a mission

The film needed to shave at least 20 minutes off its ending, of which there are many, and it’s a clear sign of a lack of confidence in how best to wrap up such an oddball of a film. While a late-in-the-second-act shakeup helps to add some needed stakes, it’s drama for drama’s sake when there was enough of a good storyline without the added speed bump.

That said, these scenes do provide the film’s funniest sequence, in which Gosling shows off his own musical number. The meshing between acts is thin, though, as the plot often moves forward without making much sense within the context of the moment.

Preacher Barbie.

The script veers into hamfisted territory during a moment we might as well label the “Barbie Learns Feminism 101” sequence. This beat is yet another moment where the film, in trying to figure out what it wants to be and what it wants to say, lays it on thick to the point of nearly sacrificing the strong character work Robbie and Gosling had been building up to this point. The world is hard for women — a truth as old as time. But while the moment aims to be rousing, the result instead may find you grinding your teeth instead. The writing believes that the message they’re preaching is more profound than it actually is.

It’s a shame, too, because the film had already been deploying this message effectively up until its Preacher Barbie moment. By spelling it out this way, the message became both muddled and patronizing — a teaching moment that is unearned and unnecessary. There’s such an intriguing, underlying plot brought to life through Robbie’s expressive face that cuts to the core of what the film’s best intentions could’ve been without the noise. The film, with all its silliness, captures the fear and simultaneous triumph that comes from seeing a life separate from the one society lays out in front of you.

Barbie plays with the ideas of destiny and what it means to discover who you are in tandem with realizing that isn’t who you want to be. An early moment where Barbie talks to an elderly woman sitting beside her and tells her she’s beautiful might seem schlocky, but it instead plays with a note of necessary grace. This is Barbie noting the beauty of being allowed to age, and it’s a fleeting feeling.

The bottom line.

Being human is hard, and uncomfortable, and our lives so often feel as if they’re at the mercy of other people’s design. Barbie, when it shines, captures those moments of ecstatic, silent, freedom when the realization hits that we have just as much a hand in our futures as the world does. 

With its lush design, broad comedy, and heart on its sleeve emotions, Barbie wants to do it all. The film fails to stick the landing because it never manages to bridge the surreal with the deeply human journey Barbie is going on and the script that digs its heels in halfway through the picture. There’s plenty to love and the cast is game — Gosling in particular though doesn’t let his comedy diminish Robbie’s heart — but there’s such an air of formality in certain speeches, and an unsteadiness in intent that renders it hollow. Gerwig’s latest feature film might be her boldest, but it’s also, unfortunately, her messiest. 

Barbie crosses into real world theaters on July 21. Watch the trailer below

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Read more articles by Ally Johnson here.

  • BARBIE - 6.5/10
Allyson Johnson

Based in New England, Allyson is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of InBetweenDrafts. Former Editor-in-Chief at TheYoungFolks, she is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Her writing has also appeared at CambridgeDay, ThePlaylist, Pajiba, VagueVisages, RogerEbert, TheBostonGlobe, Inverse, Bustle, her Substack, and every scrap of paper within her reach.

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