The Movie Waffler New to VOD - BARBIE | The Movie Waffler


Amid an existential crisis, Barbie travels to the real world.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Greta Gerwig

Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Ariana Greenblatt, America Ferrera, Will Ferrell, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman

Barbie poster

I spent most of the 2000s working for a soulless corporation that underpaid and overworked its frontline staff while constantly rewarding its top brass with pay rises regardless of how badly they were performing (yeah, that doesn't exactly narrow it down). Every year they'd invite the staff of every branch in the country to a Christmas party, which was held in February because the staff had to work over Christmas. The party was essentially an excuse for the top brass to tell us all how great they were and how great we were all doing, and encourage us to imagine how much greater we could be if we did even more work for no additional reward. The lowlight of the evening was when the lights would go down, a large screen was unfurled and we were forced to watch a video that poked fun at the top brass. Absolutely insufferable and filled with in-jokes that left anyone who didn't work in the company's head office scratching their heads, it was their way of trying to convince their underlings they had a sense of humour about evil they were, much like how former American presidents make jokes about how many brown people they killed at dinner engagements once they leave the White House.

Thankfully those videos were only five minutes long. Greta Gerwig's Barbie (co-written with her creative and romantic partner Noah Baumbach) is essentially one of those videos stretched to two hours. The evil corporation poking fun at itself in this case is Mattel, a company founded by a man named Jack Ryan who previously designed the sort of missiles that would kill those brown people American presidents like to joke about (and yes, his name really was Jack fucking Ryan). With their top-selling toy, Barbie, Mattel has been getting rich for decades while making little girls feel shitty about themselves, so in a self aware move they hired the closest thing mainstream American cinema has to a feminist filmmaker now to helm the thing.

Barbie review

The result is exactly what you expect from a corporation that wants to continue making money from an outdated product while pretending it has the best interests of little girls at heart. It's indicative of the marketing quandary corporate America currently finds itself in. It knows its product is bad for you so it hopes sticking a rainbow on the label might distract you from the fact it's going to destroy your insides (and hopes you don't look into where and how its product is manufactured).

Admittedly, it starts off promisingly with Helen Mirren delivering an amusingly dry narration over a riff on the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Margot Robbie's Barbie replacing the monolith and a bunch of young girls smashing their old fashioned dolls in lieu of this glimpse of an exciting evolution. Then we get a fun walk through of Barbieland, though it's really just a knockoff of the opening of The LEGO Movie, a film which actually succeeds where Barbie so often fails. Robbie's Barbie, referred to as Stereotypical Barbie, introduces us to a host of other dolls which all share the Barbie name if not the classic blonde likeness, along with a similar assortment of Kens. While the Barbies rule Barbieland, the Kens, including Ryan Gosling's Stereotypical Ken, exist only to seek acknowledgement from the Barbies, who largely ignore them in favour of all-girl parties.

Barbie review

Like The LEGO Movie, Barbie's plastic protagonist has an existential crisis, with Stereotypical Barbie suddenly being consumed by thoughts of death, which the rest of the Barbies dismiss as a malfunction of sorts (you may begin getting uncomfortable Don't Worry Darling flashbacks at this point). It turns out every Barbie is connected to a child in the real world, and Robbie's Barbie has been abandoned by Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt, who somehow isn't the kid sister of Hailee Steinfeld) because…well, it's 2023, not 1963. To correct the situation Barbie must travel to the real world and convince Sasha to resume playing with her toy incarnation, which I guess is basically a voodoo doll of sorts when you think about it. Much to Barbie's annoyance, she's accompanied by Stereotypical Ken.

In the real world we're treated to the sort of fish out of water hijinks that might amuse anyone who hasn't seen Time After Time, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, The Brady Bunch Movie, Twins, Terminator 2 or any other movie from the '80s or '90s. Like Christine Taylor's Marcia Brady in Betty Thomas's under-rated comic gem, Barbie finds that in modern Los Angeles being pretty is actually a burden. And if you believe someone who looks like Margot Robbie would struggle in the world's most superficial city I have a lorry load of sky hooks to sell you.

Barbie review

Barbie sells the idea that women and girls have evolved from their parents and grandparents who were happy to play house, but it conversely presents men as having remained stagnant. Ken is delighted to find himself in a world were men can be men, and this film's idea of a man being a man boils down to being interested in trucks. The film wants to critique masculinity, but it struggles to nail down what that actually means today. It presents a surprisingly regressive, binary view of gender politics, and it often resorts to gay panic when it needs to poke fun at its male characters. If this is supposed to deliver a message to young men (and Lord knows they need a good talking to), I'm not sure what they're supposed to take from it. Don't be a stereotypical male, it tells them, while also telling them not to indulge in any behaviour that might be construed as camp. The film's misunderstanding of the complexities of masculinity can be summed up by how a poster of Stallone's Rocky Balboa is used to signify toxic masculinity at one point. If Gerwig and Baumbach think Rocky Balboa is the poster boy for toxic masculinity they clearly haven't seen Rocky.

In the second half the Brady Bunch Movie shtick is dropped in favour of a reworking of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (there's even a pun about Century City) in which Gosling's Ken becomes a Caesar figure and takes over Barbieland, pitting Kens against Barbies, men against women. If it wasn't already clear that the film's perspective on feminism was as white as a jar of Hellmann's, it's hammered home as Gerwig pushes her reductive girls against boys narrative, tone deaf in its unwillingness to acknowledge key factors like class and race. Annoyingly, all this insufferable performative white liberalism is capped off with a genuinely great pun. Whether you can make it to the end to experience it is another question.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2023 movie reviews