- Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for “Barbie,” which hits theaters July 21.
- Ryan Gosling delivers a standout performance as Ken, a hilarious himbo vying for Barbie’s affections.
- “Barbie” delivers smart commentary, but doesn’t offer solutions to the real-world issues it presents.
Whether you love or hate Barbie, Warner Bros.’ long-awaited celebration of Mattel’s quintessential doll has something for everyone.
In development for nearly a decade, “Barbie” manages to straddle a vibrant film filled with enough Easter eggs and nods to the doll’s 64-year history to necessitate a second watch with a self-critical piece for those who believe Barbie is a detriment to feminism.
Much of the film’s adult humor is sure to go over younger viewers’ heads, but at its most basic, director Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” is fun to watch, sending viewers on an emotional rollercoaster as it delivers pure joy one moment before serving up nostalgia the next, at times channeling a live-action “Toy Story.”
It’s a snackable summer delight with more than one memorable musical number from its star Ryan Gosling, plus clever needledrops from the likes of Dua Lipa, Charlie XCX, Matchbox Twenty, and more thanks to the film’s star-studded soundtrack.
Unfortunately, the film’s larger commentary on how men and women are treated differently falls short of offering any inspiring solutions, though its introspection is far deeper than what would be expected of a summer blockbuster about an iconic doll.
‘Barbie’ has a wilder, more existential plot than trailers suggest
Kicking off in fictional Barbie Land, every Barbie and Ken live under the false impression that “all problems of feminism have been solved” in the real world. Since women hold all the power as president, doctors, Supreme Court justices, and homeowners in Barbie Land, they presume the same philosophy applies outside of their fictional paradise.
The Kens, led by Gosling and Simu Liu, only exist to serve their Barbie and live in her shadow.
When “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) begins malfunctioning — developing cellulite, existential thoughts about dying, and the dreaded flat feet — she sets out to the real world with Ken (Gosling) to set things right. However, unexpected discoveries in Los Angeles lead them to question everything.
Barbie is horrified to learn that women aren’t running the world, as she’s catcalled and objectified. Emotionally, Barbie grapples with the purpose of her existence, and what to do if she’s not making the world a better place and is instead causing girls to internalize unrealistic beauty standards. (Yeah, this movie goes deep.) Robbie’s soul-crushing emotional distress is palpable as Barbie has an existential crisis.
Gosling’s Ken is having a blast, though. Thrilled to find himself respected for the first time in his life, he becomes obsessed with the idea of patriarchy so much so that he introduces the concept to Barbie Land, with disastrous results. It’s then up to Barbie – already overwhelmed by the harsh reality of men ruling the real world – to take back Barbie Land before it too is destroyed and dominated by men.
There was something incredibly ironic about Barbies and Kens fighting for their right to be heard in a fictional land as writers, directors, and actors descended a few blocks down the street outside Warner Bros.’ studio, striking for the very same thing in Hollywood. (Insider’s screening was moved earlier in the week from the Warner Bros.’ studio lot ahead of the SAG-AFTRA strike.)
‘Barbie’ isn’t afraid to take shots at its parent company, Mattel, making it worth a watch
Despite being filled with Easter eggs for fans, the film is simultaneously self-critical of its legacy.
While the bubblegum trailers and ubiquitous marketing campaign may have audiences convinced they’re tuning in to see a glowing film about the doll, “Barbie” isn’t afraid of tackling its controversial past by highlighting and poking fun at discontinued and canceled Barbies, including Sugar Daddy Ken and a Skipper doll whose boobs grew with the twist of an arm.
The film even jokes about the original Barbie creator’s legal troubles.
Ryan Gosling’s Kenergy is the MVP of ‘Barbie’
Everyone from Michael Cera as Ken’s buddy Allan to Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie (a doll who was played with a little too passionately) is perfectly cast. And, of course, there’s Robbie, whose features make her look as if she was generated by Mattel itself.
But it’s Gosling who knocks it out of the park as a jealous himbo vying for Barbie’s affections. Much like an actual Ken doll, Gosling’s Ken never feels seen, appreciated, or respected in a world full of Barbies. He’s constantly in competition with Simu Liu’s Ken, who adorably gets under his skin.
And yes, for those who were wondering, “Barbie” contains so much shirtless Gosling it’s borderline distracting. His washboard abs get just about as much screen time as his bleach blonde hair.
Gosling’s scene-stealing moments come late in the film, when he sings and dances in a music montage with the Kens. The number is equally funny and heartfelt, making it impossible to not feel a pang of sadness when Gosling’s Ken sings, “I’m just Ken. Anywhere else I’d be a 10. Where I see love, she sees a friend.” A reminder of Gosling’s early Mickey Mouse Club days, it’s one of the best moments in any movie so far in 2023.
The film’s other highlight comes from America Ferrera, who plays a mother who delivers an impassioned feminist speech. As she lists off numerous unrealistic expectations placed on women, it’s difficult to imagine the scene won’t resonate with every grown woman sitting in theaters. (The scene resulted in myself and the two women sitting on either side of me quietly wiping tears from our eyes.)
It’s not clear what message ‘Barbie’ is trying to deliver
By the end of its 114-minute runtime, the “Barbie” movie transforms from a film depicting the struggles of simply existing as a woman and uniting to topple the (at least fictional) patriarchy to one that makes the audience sympathize with Ken even as he temporarily becomes the film’s misguided himbo antagonist.
Often, it feels like you’re watching at least two (albeit very good) competing movies – a Barbie one and a Ken one. Because of that, it’s difficult to synthesize the message to take away from “Barbie.”
“Barbie” offers up a lot of big ideas to ponder, but it frustratingly fails to take a stance on any potential solutions.
Are women supposed to feel empowered to overthrow men? It’s tough to buy that when Barbie, upon seeing how the real world treats women, initially retreats from reality to the comfort of her own fictional safe haven.
Are we supposed to want equality for men and women? The one narrative throughline that rings true for both Barbie and Ken is that they both want to be respected and seen: Barbie in the real world, and Ken in the fictional. But it’s also tough to buy this because, without spoiling, this messaging gets muddled by the film’s end.
Ultimately, the movie serves as a harsh reminder that Ken is only “just Ken” in fictional Barbie Land. In the real world, he’s everything. It’s women who are “just Barbie.” Barbie can only be everything in the fictional worlds we imagine. And the film offers little on what we can do about that, placing the impetus on its audience to grapple with that dark reality instead of fully engaging with it, as Billie Eilish’s gutting “What Was I Made For?” plays over the film’s credits.
Also starring Will Ferrell, Issa Rae, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Emma Mackey, “Barbie” is in theaters Friday.