July 18, 2023
In a recent article by The New Yorker, Greta Gerwig stated that “her ambition is to be not the biggest woman director but a big studio director. And Barbie is a piece of I.P. that resonated with her.” Sure, the arthouse crowd could cry foul at losing one of their most longstanding patrons, with Gerwig being most known through the mid-2000s to late 2010s as an entrenched member of the mumblecore movement where young adults vented about their first-world problems (that’s the crass way of defining the genre).
From Martin Scorsese to Christopher Nolan, plenty of major filmmakers have started small and then jumped aboard the volatile cruise ship that is the studio system. They’re legends to the public because they can seamlessly find the most comfortable middle ground between art and entertainment. The loss within the independent crowd from Gerwig’s departure is a noble sacrifice, as having her at the helm of tentpole productions is of benefit to the greater good of cinema. Barbie may not find that exact sweet spot like the instant classic blockbusters, but it has just as much of a brain as it does have good ol’ fashioned summer movie season fun, solidifying itself as an achievement of this season.
Just as she does in our childlike imaginations, Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in a perfect dream world where the sun shines every day and everyone gets along. The Barbies inhabit and govern the land in perfect harmony, with the Kens (Ryan Gosling being Robbie’s "... and Ken") always competing for the attention and affection of their female counterparts. Every day is the same day, that is until Robbie’s Barbie, known as Sterotypical Barbie because of her absolute perfection, starts having thoughts about death and existentialism. This rift is due to a downward mood in the girl that owns Stereotypical Barbie in the real world, as the doll reflects the emotions of the person who plays with her. So Barbie must venture out into our imperfect world, towing Ken along with her.
The overall uniqueness of Barbie is no small feat, but it’s also not something that should be viewed as that big of a surprise, especially to those who have paid attention to Gerwig’s tenure as a director. Both the lived-in intimacy of Lady Bird and the modern buoyancy of Little Women are evident here. It’s so apparent how a product so steeped in corporate greed like Barbie could have been a cynical cash grab. Gerwig avoids (most of) those pitfalls, infusing this fish-out-of-water story with reflective takes on feminism, gender roles, and self-worth. There’s the million-dollar question surrounding the whole story: Barbie is perfect so that she can inspire little girls to be perfect at any job they want. But is selling perfection only setting kids up for failure, as we all learn that no one is perfect?
The answers Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach (also her husband) give are nothing you haven’t heard before. But just as Triangle of Sadness and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery didn’t have the most original things to say about the ultra-rich last year, the obvious things they were saying have never been said more funnily. Gerwig and Baumbach deliver nonstop laughs with their script, dishing up just as hearty spoonfuls of social commentary.
Gosling walks away with the most laughs, as his dim-witted charm and good looks make him the personification of a lost puppy. His role is a purely comedic one, with Robbie commandingly doing the tougher task of balancing the humor and central themes of the movie. She walks and talks like a dream doll, but also finds something deep within the core of her plastic shell. The rest of the large ensemble cast is there for support, with some getting better treatment than others (Kate McKinnon often steals the show as Weird Barbie, but Will Ferrell gets little to do as the Mattell CEO).
If 2003’s The Cat in the Hat is the worst case for this sort of candy-coated production, then Barbie is one of the best-case scenarios. Gerwig has kept her directorial winning streak intact and further pushes her status as one of this generation’s leading voices. I’ve got some simple free advice for all the studio heads been facing big blockbuster bombs this summer: invest in Greta Gerwig.