Long serving as a fun bit of Internet trivia to stoke the engagement machine, fervently celebrated actor/writer/director Greta Gerwig’s canceled 2014 CBS pilot — a gender-flipped reboot of How I Met Your Mother naturally dubbed How I Met Your Dad — takes on a retroactive significance as she heads into what’s projected to be a $100 million opening weekend for her latest directorial effort. Bound for career footnote status otherwise, Gerwig’s brief venture into the world of network TV comedy now looks less like a stopover and more like her general destination. That’s to say that, Barbie, Gerwig’s fourth directorial feature (third solo), gets this auteur to a strata she’s reached for from the early days (even as an actor, more reputable titles like Frances Ha and Damsels in Distress sat side by side No Strings Attached and the Russel Brand Arthur remake), and by slightly more dignified means too. But what’s the cost of such visibility and influence? Can one really hope to wrangle the mass media of today into something as personal and artful as the filmmakers have claimed to have done here? Is there a discernible purpose for embracing the Hollywood system to this degree in the year 2023?
Barbie is all too aware of these looming questions, and makes it its business to answer them rather directly, yet it doesn’t stop there. In fact, this is the film’s defining drive: anticipating and responding to the inevitable critiques and discourses that the film’s subject provokes. Gerwig, working off a screenplay written alongside her creative and romantic partner Noah Baumbach, approaches her Barbie film with the understanding that adapting(?) the iconic doll means confronting her fraught and regressive history and waning popularity. IP owner Mattel — currently making a big push to establish itself as Hollywood players —appears to be of a similar mind, having kept this project alive for over a decade (first announced a year after Gerwig made her directorial debut with Nights and Weekends!) while cycling through a number of studios and irreverent female voices (Diablo Cody, Amy Schumer, Anna Biller), working through myriad takes on the material with a consistent aim toward mild satire and brand reinforcement. One can see why Mattel ultimately anointed the Gerwig/Baumbach team, with the film they’ve delivered surely up to corporate expectation even as it takes its meta swipes at the very same execs who greenlit the project. Barbie positions itself as subversive, but by the film’s end, it’s unclear what the filmmakers have actually managed to disrupt or undermine beyond our perception of the Mattel corporation (“They can take a joke!”).
Operating off of the template set forth by The Lego Movie, though interwoven with a Pinocchio-narrative — Splash has been referenced in interviews, though it plays even more like A.I., albeit silly — Barbie tells the tale of Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, Barbie Land’s most popular denizen and the object of Ken’s (Ryan Gosling) stilted advances. A matriarchal society that revels in the hallmarks of a heteronormative, Western femininity, Barbie Land’s diverse citizenry (Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Dua Lipa) can’t fathom a world where such things aren’t adored, and for the most part, that mindset goes uncontested. These dolls are aware that they are the toys of humans off in a parallel world, though it seems that this aspect of their existence goes unexamined, until Robbie’s Barbie starts developing cellulite and finds herself consumed by a never-before-experienced fear of death. Spurred on to the human world by the shamanistic Weird Barbie (an unwelcome appearance from the terrible Kate McKinnon), Robbie’s Barbie and stowaway Gosling’s Ken land in L.A., expecting to be treated like celebrity, but instead mocked and thrown in jail a couple times over. The two characters soon diverge, with Ken enraptured by the power promised to him by our patriarchal society, and Barbie heading to Mattel HQ where she comes in conflict with Will Ferrell’s buffoonish CEO (sort of a fake antagonist not too dissimilar from the one he played in the aforementioned The Lego Movie) and discovers that the company’s executive receptionist (America Ferrera in frazzled mom mode, not a great role) is the source of her newly inherited existential dread. Ferrera and her daughter (Ariana Greenblatt as a snide Gen Z stand-in the film can’t decide if it likes) team up with Barbie to get her out of the hands of Mattel and back to save a bro’d out version of Barbie Land from Ken’s new vision of patriarchy.
Wielding a $145 million budget and backed by Scorsese’s current go-to DP Rodrigo Pietro, plus high-dollar costume drama production designer Sarah Greenwood, Gerwig conjures up her mythical Barbie Land in lavish, tactile detail, rich in fully saturated plastic pinks and neons. Barbie assuredly looks better than just about all of its box office competition, and offers at least two particularly thrilling set pieces; indeed, one can’t deny that Gerwig has a legitimate handle on spectacle and scale, and in turn, a better sense for the cinematic than most of the folks directing blockbusters these days. But the trade-off inherent to making something like Barbie doesn’t track as worthwhile, the occasional moments of big-budget visual inspiration outstripped by a mind-numbingly obvious, overly worked screenplay and somewhat irritating performances that invoke Gerwig’s unrealized sitcom aspirations. Curiously, Gosling and Robbie (who gives the film’s only truly good performance) happen to be the only stars without a background in sitcom (give or take Nef), which comes across in the loudness of the performances and the confidence in selling a lot of hack, archetypal jokes. Yes, the cast seems to get the tone and comedic rhythms Gerwig and Baumbach are pursuing, but it’s because they’re pulled from the world of network television and Nickelodeon. There’s some attempt to signal authorship via some lazy referential humor aimed at the older millennials and gen-Xers in the audience — an outdated Pavement gag here, a Proust joke imported from Frances Ha and awkwardly jammed in there — but the various cutaways and fourth-wall-breaking voiceover will only really generate hollow laughs of recognition (the mistimed zippiness of the editing and DOA soundtrack definitely don’t help in this matter). That it’s also steeped in the buzzwords and takes of the last decade’s (cis, hetero) Internet gender discourse, while simultaneously favoring a rather conservative, binary view of male/female relations (think back to those sitcoms again), makes the enterprise feel more compromised and pointless (even a bit sanctimonious). Then again, many will be happy just to hear social justice language in a mass-market, Summer blockbuster. So it goes. With Barbie, Gerwig insists that much like life itself, Barbie is imperfect, and yet it’s our job to project meaning onto her and strive for a better doll, as if she were some sort of elemental force, with us since the dawn of time (the film’s 2001-inspired prologue sets this idea in motion). All in all, it’s not an unsavvy way to pitch a rebrand and launch a new wave of toy-centric cinema.
DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig; CAST: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Michael Cera, America Ferrera; DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros.; IN THEATERS: July 21; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 54 min.