Imagine the iconic figures of Barbie and Ken, ensnared within the confines of a commercial world, yet reaching out to touch the threads of our reality. That’s the landscape Greta Gerwig chose to traverse in her latest fantasy adventure, where Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken strive to save the parallel universe of Barbieland. While the director of “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” deploys her trademark narrative precision and eye for detail to deliver a charmingly wry doll comedy, her attempt to fuse this light-hearted romp with deeper political commentary yields an ambitious but ultimately disjointed film.
Gerwig’s Barbieland is a pastel panorama, thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costume mastery. It’s a place of identical Barbie dream houses, plastic trees, and engineless vehicles floating in a sea of bubblegum anthems. But beneath its surface, the director constructs a feminist utopia, complete with Barbies holding esteemed positions from presidency to scientific achievement, an inversion of our patriarchal reality.
A host of formidable actors fill the world’s ranks, but the film’s heartbeat lies within the Stereotypical Barbie, performed with sparkling wit by Margot Robbie, and her counterpart Ken, played with warmth and humor by Ryan Gosling. Their existence is Eden-like, until Barbie’s newly found existential quandaries lead her to the real-world Los Angeles, a journey that both shatters her self-conception and reinforces Ken’s.
Gerwig’s venture into the real world facilitates poignant moments as Robbie’s Barbie grapples with the human condition and the harsh realities of patriarchal dominance. These encounters with human characters, like the all-male executive suite of Mattel and Gloria, a Mattel secretary played brilliantly by America Ferrera, add a certain level of narrative complexity to the doll fantasy. Yet, the film’s treatment of its weightier themes often feels superfluous, as though they were appended to the script rather than grown organically within it.
In an attempt to straddle the line between a light-hearted comedy and a profound commentary, Gerwig’s “Barbie” grapples with its identity. Once Barbie returns home to find Ken, equipped with his new understanding of patriarchy, has remade Barbieland, the film’s inherent tension between fun and serious commentary cracks open. Gerwig’s hand, steady in shaping nuanced narratives in her previous works, wavers here, caught between the demand for humor and her desire to extract deeper meanings from a constrained framework.
The result is a muddled political narrative and an emotional arc that falls flat. The film features important monologues that could have been stirring, but the gravity of their messages gets diluted with each repetition. It feels like the film is striving to do too much, thereby losing some of its sincerity along the way.
Even in this muddle, Gerwig threads themes from her previous films into “Barbie“. The film teeters on the edges of self-definition, the intricate dynamics of mother-daughter relationships, and the constraints imposed on women by a society obsessed with categories. These themes are all the more prominent in Robbie’s portrayal of Barbie. Her increased consciousness manifests in her expressive eyes, and her movements oscillate between mechanical rigidity in Barbieland and a profound humanlike rigidity in the real world.
However, “Barbie“, while a cleverly woven tale in the hands of Gerwig, is a film that ultimately serves a brand. The compromises to the story are evident and an underlying sense of unease about the future of films catering to the franchise ambitions of corporate toymakers like Mattel, mars the viewing experience.
Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” stands out as an ambitious effort to imbue commercial cinema with deeper narratives. Yet, its attempt to tread new ground gets mired in a battle between the levity of a doll comedy and the gravity of a socio-political commentary. Despite the film’s evident weaknesses, it does manage to remind us that cinema, like the iconic Barbie, can be much more than just a commercial product. It can be an agent of reflection, change, and human connection.
© Photos: Warner Bros
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