MovieSteve rating:
Your star rating:

And so Barbie is born, as a live-action presence, I mean. She’s been in utero one way or another for nearly 40 years, going all the way back to the 1980s and the Cannon Group’s plans to put her on the big screen (shudder). Between there and here there have been many possible outcomes – a possible Amy Schumer Barbie, a possible screenplay by Diablo Cody, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins in charge. All of them sound interesting, but in the event it turns out to be Margot Robbie as Barbie and Greta Gerwig directing, with Noah Baumbach in the backroom as co-writer with Gerwig.

The stories about a movie’s gestation are often ones about backroom fights compromise and yet this looks like the perfect outcome – star and director both in the sweet spot in their careers, powerful enough to hold back the dark forces of commerce and TELL THEIR OWN STORY.

“Doing the thing and subverting the thing,” is how Gerwig has described her approach. Robbie thinks this is a feminist movie, so does Gerwig; Mattel (owners of the brand) do not. Job done.

But I’m neglecting the plot. Which could be described as Crocodile Dundee with a coda or two, or three. After a comedy prelude in which little girls discover the evolutionary power of a small, blond plastic woman in 2001: A Space Odyssey style – to the rousing climaxes of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – we’re in a perfect pre-lapsarian pink plastic matriarchy full of women called Barbie, centring on Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie. There are men, called Ken, but they are largely ornamental. One of these male dolls will jibe against the limitations of just being “and Ken” and start to yearn for something more, as well as a piece of Barbie. Eventually he’ll get a chance to take action on both fronts after Barbie starts having existential doubts about life, the universe and so on and heads off to the real world to sort her head out, unaware that Ken has stowed away on the back seat of her dinky pink sports car. Soon the two of them are having fish-out-of-water comedy moments together in Venice Beach, California.

Kate McKinnon's Barbie with a stiletto shoe and a Birkenstock
Kate McKinnon’s Barbie on the important difference in types of footwear

The coda, an extended one, is Ken’s realisation that the real world runs on different lines – the patriarchy – which he decides to re-import back to Barbie world, certain that a good dose of the same is the shake-up that Barbie world needs too.

There is another coda, in which Barbie returns to Barbie world, a second coming, to restore order. And then another one, in which she realises that, hey, maybe matriarchy is an “archy” too and decides to something something something. Pleasant vibes. Sunshine. Plastic accessories!

It is all brilliantly done, almost all of it on real sets too. So like The Wizard of Oz (and Barbie herself) it will never grow old. It is clever and funny and self-aware. It addresses the issues people would expect to be addressed – feminism, consumerism, unrealistic expectations about female body image – with flair and wit. It does the thing and also subverts the thing. Ryan Gosling takes his shirt off and it appears he’s been at the gym since the dawn of time. He sings a song. He twinkles away like a star in the sky.

There are a thousand boxes that need ticking, according to Gerwig and Baumbach’s own exhausting checklist and if there’s a knockdown fight to be had with this movie it’s with that breathless, ruthless sense of things being worked through one after another. You can sometimes see the machinery whirring away beneath. There is no real organic sense of flow – that may also be part of the grand plan.

Performances? Perfect. Margot Robbie as Barbie, what more can you say – a woman and a role in perfect harmony. Ryan Gosling as Ken, ditto. There are other people in it – Michael Cera and Kate McKinnon, for example – but the only real story is Barbie’s (with a bit of “and Ken” for good measure).

Apparently Margot Robbie, in her role as producer, turned up at the studio to pitch this herself. Can you imagine that, Barbie pitches her own movie.

Barbie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2023

Leave a Comment