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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Barbie"


Pauline Kael once referred to The Godfather as the ultimate merger of commerce and art, and surely a similar distinction could be laid at the permanently arched feet of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. You might not expect The Godfather—or, for that matter, Pauline Kael—to be mentioned in the same breath as a cinematic brand extension of the world’s most famous plastic doll, but nor would you expect the Barbie movie to open with an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet it does.

Gerwig, who co-authored the screenplay with her partner Noah Baumbach, has made what is perhaps the best possible version of a corporate mandate, a series of shrewd boardroom decisions wherein the boardroom itself is subject to mockery.

It all begins in the sun-dappled fantasia of Barbieland, where Barbies hold positions of power and influence and live dream lives in their lavish Dream Homes. There’s President Barbie and Doctor Barbie and Defense Attorney Barbie and even Weird Barbie, that doll in every toy box that’s drawn on and dropped in the dirt and has its hair singed off. And then there are all the Kens, and… well, they’re just Kens.

Every doll wakes up smiling in Barbieland. But one of the Barbies, played by Margot Robbie, begins to feel pangs of existential paranoia and even thoughts of this thing called death. What’s going on? The answer is in the Real World, so Barbie hops into her hot pink Corvette and emerges on highlighter yellow rollerblades in Venice Beach. One of the Kens (Ryan Gosling) tags along, hoping a brush with flesh-and-blood humanity also gives him purpose.

Turns out Barbie is the conduit for all the stresses and frustrations of a Mattel employee played by America Ferrera, whose great ideas for the Barbie toy line are ignored by the all-male top brass. Soon enough, Mattel gets word that a couple of their creations are walking around in the Real World, and the boorish CEO played by Will Ferrell goes chasing after them. Ken, meanwhile, can’t believe he’s found a world where gender dynamics are flipped and soon becomes a poster boy for patriarchy (which he thinks, for some reason, involves horses).

This is a sharp, distinctly contemporary concept, but it’s not enough anymore for a movie to simply be a self-referential, self-deprecating bauble, which is why it’s so refreshing that Barbie is also a movie with real vision. Gerwig and her team have created a wild, vibrant world and have fully committed to it from beginning to end, and I was reminded of Tim Burton’s early work, as well as the postmodern kitsch of The Brady Bunch Movie.

It’s also in the same vein as The LEGO Movie, another nimble comic adventure based on a toy that thoughtfully considered what that toy means to the millions of kids who have played with it. In the case of Barbie, that meaning is fraught. It’s appropriate that she appears in that opening scene as the 2001 monolith, because as a cultural object, Barbie carries around the impossible pressure of needing to represent everything to every woman.

Lest I make the movie sound too overburdened with meaning, it’s also consistently funny in big, broad, cartoonish ways. And it benefits from the work of Robbie and Gosling, who are effortlessly hilarious and endearing in deceptively difficult roles.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Barbie subversive; it is, after all, an elaborate toy commercial. But there’s a sardonic and wicked streak in it, a sweet-and-sour bite that I’m surprised Gerwig got away with. This movie feels like a delightful fluke, one whose pleasures will, like, no doubt be mass-marketed on an assembly line to increasingly tedious effect. For now, though, Barbie is plastic and it’s fantastic.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101 heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM on KPBX.