BARBIE is a fun light film that isn't really as profound or original as it thinks, but worth seeing for Ryan Gosling's star-turn as Ken. Greta Gerwig shows us how cine literate she is, but she tangles herself in knots trying to show us how Barbie is actually a feminist icon. Worse still, she wastes a truly heartfelt pre-ending with housewife turned Barbie inventor Ruth Handler with yet another tonally uneven shift into broad comedy.
First the good stuff. For much of its running time BARBIE is a lot of fun. It looks fun, the pop songs are great, the costumes are fabulous and it has the same kind of crass gonzo energy as ZOOLANDER. Ryan Gosling is absolutely superb as Barbie's overlooked boyfriend Ken, really channelling that Owen Wilson-Ben Stiller vibe with his outrageous prickly vanity. I also loved Michael Cera - long known to us a dry comedy genius - as Ken's even more overlooked sidekick.
The problem is that these charismatic, hilarious, male characters overshadow Barbie in her own movie. Ken's enlightenment upon leaving Barbieland for contemporary LA is that men (and horses!) rule! The path of Ken from friendzoned sidekick to champion of the patriarchy and thence to working on himself and being "Ken Enough" is genuinely fascinating and funny and at times genuinely poignant. It's something we haven't really seen addressed in contemporary film before: the reaction of men in a world that is now empowering women - or at least paying lip service to that.
By contrast, Barbie's enlightenment that the real world is not a matriarchy is pretty hackneyed. America Ferrera makes a superb speech in the final act of the film about how tough it is to be a woman in contemporary society - be pretty but not too threatening, be thin but not too thin, have a career but also be a great mum. The speech resonates but felt like so many speeches I had heard before. There is (sadly) nothing new here for us, even it's new to Barbie.
I also don't feel that the film ever squares the circle of how to reconcile the "fascistic" uber prettiess of Barbie with the concept that Barbie is actually a feminist empowerment telling little girls everywhere they can be doctors and scientists and President. What Barbie actually tells them is that society recognises and rewards an impossible standard of beauty. The character Sasha gets it right with her epic second act takedown but Greta Gerwig (in partnership with Mattel) never has the balls or the scope to really explore that.
Last but not least, let's talk about tone, and how Greta Gerwig tries to have it all - from dayglo Barbie pink with songs by Lizzo and Dua Lipa, to ethereal mournful existential angst in the words of Billie Eilish. I feel that is particularly jarring in the final scenes of the film where a genuinely moving scene between Margot Robbie's Barbie and Rhea Pearlman's Ruth Handler is sandwiched between Barbieland fun and a gynie joke. Pick a lane, Greta! Pick a lane.
BARBIE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 114 minutes.