Barbie review — As fun (and subversive) as a corporate toy commercial gets

Directed by Greta Gerwig | Written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach | 114  min | ▲▲▲▲△

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know about this movie. This week, if you searched for Barbie on Google your screen turned pink. The hype has been intense, made more so by the delightful juxtaposition of this film — aimed at girls and women — with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, marketed to the Nolan fanboys. They both open this weekend.

Part of the appeal for cinephiles isn’t so much that this is the movie about the toy beloved by millions, but that it’s directed by indie queen Greta Gerwig and written by Gerwig and her romantic and creative partner, Noah Baumbach. Only in 2023 would a toy movie like Barbie be made by the creative minds behind Lady Bird, Little Women, Marriage Story and Frances Ha.

Some will delight in this entirely feminist text, a subversion of what some see as an anti-feminist corporate  brand, and others are likely to feel this is some kind of a sellout — whatever the politics, it’s still an almost two-hour toy commercial.

I can see both arguments — the film is clever and genuinely entertaining in its meta knowingness, both celebrating the doll while also allowing for criticism of the unrealistic expectations Barbie has brought about for generations of girls — and it’s also an almost two-hour toy commercial.

Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in a perfect Barbieland with many other Barbies (including Issa Rae, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, even trans actor Hari Nef is a Barbie, which is already upsetting conservatives in the United States. You’d think they’d be more up in arms about John Cena as a Mermaid Barbie, but it’s hard to predict what will rile those folks up these days.)

Oh, and Kate McKinnon is Weird Barbie, the reasons for which will be obvious.

In Barbieland the Kens are just there as accessories to the Barbies, including the ones played by Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, and Kingsley Ben-Adir. Michael Cera is Allan, a doll who was discontinued awhile back so there’s only the one of him.

When Stereotypical Barbie starts having thoughts about death, she and Gosling Ken take a trip to the Real World, which is Los Angeles, naturally. They find it’s quite the opposite of what they’re used to. Ken starts to read books about horses and the patriarchy, and Barbie has an existential crisis, which attracts the attention of the people who work at Mattel, including the CEO (Will Ferrell), Gloria (America Ferrera), and her daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt).

Feminism is the word of the day — the picture pretty much serves as an explainer of the patriarchy.

Ryan Gosling’s Ken is its MVP — he’s entirely clueless, and his transformation from a well-meaning, smitten beach dude to a douchey bro is a real gift to the world — love his Kenergy, as they say.  But the film isn’t bashing men, it’s too busy showing how we’re all victims in a world without equality. In some respects the politics are a bit obvious, but then they might not be to the tween audience of girls it’s aimed at.

Someone needs to write a thesis on brands participating in their own satiric reassessment — not to mention movies about toys that have room for mentions of gynecology, inflatable breasts, and smallpox blankets. Barbie is a love letter to inauthenticity while its lead character takes a journey toward her own authentic self.

The picture also serves as a biography of the doll, how it became so popular in American culture — nice to see Rhea Perlman make an appearance in a key role — while also being a kind of musical, indebted to both The Red Shoes and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Gerwig and Baumbach know the cinenerd canon well — the Godfather and Justice League gags even made me wince.

That these issues, and influences, are being explored/exploited in a movie about Barbie is kind of astonishing. That this movie exists at all is, too.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.