Who would have thought that the director of such nuanced and meticulous films like ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Little Women’ would be able to craft such a bombastic film that is fully committed to its absurdity as ‘Barbie.’ Director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig, (with co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach of ‘Marriage Story’) delivers a narrative that never takes itself too seriously, ever, and by doing so manage to break all the rules and expectations set upon as a movie and allows it to go to places both familiar, true, and biting without ever feeling like you are being preached to. Because the politics of the film is part of the joke.
People immediately ask if the film is political, and I find that question difficult to answer. Everything is political and, for sure, ‘Barbie’ gets political, but the film takes its time to set up the parameters of the discussion first and chooses the tone of whimsy and light-hearted comedy. It doesn’t go deep or hit hard until way after the film’s midpoint and you’ve been completely taken over by the absurdist events and hilarity that when the politics comes in, it feels like part of the joke. It doesn’t take away from the truth and the authenticity of it, but it gets to make its statements and they are powerful ones.
After all, the movie presents us with the idea of Barbie world – a place where all the Barbies ever produced (even the discontinued ones) live, living their lives in one perfect day over and over – as an actual place as much as it is an idea. It’s a world that can be left to go to the real world, “our world,” and it can also be visited by humans. When one particular Barbie begins to think of thoughts about death (as seen in the trailer), her perfect world and perfect day is disrupted and her arched feet goes flat.
In order to discover what went wrong, she must travel to the real world to discover the truth. By her side is Ken, who feels his whole life’s objective is to be in support of Barbie. He has no other function, otherwise.
But when they go to the real world, it’s not the world that they expected: not a world of empowered women. Instead, it is a difficult world where men are in power. And things start to change.
What’s great about ‘Barbie’ is that it’s an unhinged, absurdist comedy that is inherently satirical but manages to disguise its most biting commentaries in the form of silliness. It is so fully committed to its style and form that you never feel like the film is standing on a pulpit, though the film actually does go into political monologues. It’s just done in such a way that it is part of the humour and so deep into the film’s narrative that, by that time, you are completely unguarded and just willing to take whatever this film dishes out.
This is achieved by the film’s campy tone – everything is just absurdly colourful and outrageous in its visual style – it leans on the fictional mode that it even skirts the line between cheesy special effects and more sophisticated ones. What is equally incredible is how its stars – most notably Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling – fully commit to the style and aesthetic of this movie.
In fact, Robbie and Gosling provide incredibly textured and nuanced performances. They understand that they are both ideas and actual beings. Robbie works on the level of physicality, her face and body movements are fully in line with that of what a Barbie doll looks like but manages to convey her character’s every thought and feeling. It’s such delicate work that it’s impressive. It’s award-worthy, to be honest. But the one who steals the show is Ryan Gosling, who is so committed to the silliness of his character (and his character gets to do more silly stuff than Robbie’s, who delves into the more existential themes of the film) that it can take center stage sometimes.
But both are amazing and so are the rest of the cast, including such an earnest performance from American Ferrera, who gets the film’s most powerful monologue
For all of the films artifice and how much it leans into its fakeness (of concept, of aesthetic, of its filmmaking) it manages to hit some hard truths about some pressing issues. The film manages to tackle identity and purpose, the roles that are impressed upon us by society, feminism and patriarchy, commercialism, and the pitfalls of capitalism. It manages to poke fun of these things while still asking very serious questions in the process.
And as the film reaches its fever pitch in a huge musical number that is as crazy as it is silly, the film manages to enter a very existential, philosophical conclusion that is completely opposite of the rest of the film, but it feels fitting and honest. The film earns it anyway. It earns every laugh, and every hard-hitting truth that it manages to touch upon.