"Do you guys ever think about dying?"
Hi Barbie. Nice to see you on screens everywhere embodied to impossible perfection by Margot Robbie. So what's an existential line about death—a topic the Mattel toy company never considered when they introduced the plastic Barbie doll in 1959— doing in a pretty-in-pink fantasia that's built to be the party movie of the summer?
Glad you asked. It's part of a plan from Greta Gerwig ("Little Women"), the Oscar nominated director of "Lady Bird" who wrote the subversively funny script with her partner Noah Baumbach, to give audiences what Gerwig calls, "the thing you didn't know you wanted."
So let's jump back a minute. Until Barbie quits a disco dance to ask disturbing questions, her movie rides high on a pink cloud of feminist wish fulfillment in which Barbies come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There's a President Barbie (Issa Rae), an all-Barbie Supreme Court, a Barbie played by trans actress Hari Nef and, well, you get the woke picture.
Robbie's so-called "Stereotypical Barbie" floats through Barbieland—gorgeously imagined by Gerwig and her dazzling design team—concerned with fashion and party choices. Guys? They're beach accessories, even the Ken doll that the irresistibly hilarious and heartfelt Ryan Gosling brings to such sweet, clueless life. "I'm just Ken," he sings, as if that's enough.
Hook-ups don't really apply even when Ken asks to stay over for the night. "For what?" asks a wide-eyed Barbie. "I'm actually not sure," says Ken.
Robbie and Gosling are a match made in movie heaven. And Gerwig could have sent her "Barbie" to box-office glory simply by riding the safe surface of her comic vision.
That, of course, goes against everything Gerwig stands for as a filmmaker who lives to probe under the Hollywood veneer. As a producer as well as a star, Robbie chose Gerwig to steer her Barbie ship fully knowing that risk is part of the Gerwig equation.
Innocence goes out the window when Weird Barbie (the great Kate McKinnon) tells Robbie's stereotypical version to banish her fears about cellulite, flat feet and mortality by entering the real world.
Shot in Los Angeles—arguably the most unreal place in America—the film switches gears into a toxic universe ruled by the patriarchy. It's a revelation for Ken and his fellow dudes, including Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Michael Cera, but hell for Barbie.
Gerwig's ambition is indisputable, but her goals can also trip her up. She satirizes the greed of Mattel executives, led by a boobish Will Ferrell, who only want to exploit Barbie for fun and profit. But she's doing the same thing since the movie couldn't happen without Mattel financing. Like it or not, everyone is still hawking a toy doll.
A terrific America Ferrera as a Mattel executive with a preteen daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) who thinks Barbie is a fascist out to glorify rampant consumerism delivers a rousing speech about women fighting for equality, but the lecture seems less organic than tacked-on and self-congratulatory.
Is Barbie the top-heavy, wasp-waisted plastic paragon of false femininity that screwed up generations of girls, or a toy that children could shape into their own likenesses? Gerwig, ever the humanist, wants it both ways.
Compromise? Maybe. But those love-hate contradictions can't stop "Barbie" from hitting you like a shot in the heart.