Friday, April 19, 2024

Review: “Barbie” Wins for Best Marketed Film Ever, But Movie Starring Plucky Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling Is Short on Laughs, Long on Lessons


“Barbie” is everywhere.

The idea of taking Mattel’s number 1 doll and blanketing the world with her has worked. Greta Gerwig’s movie tie in to a toy has such high awareness that Warner Bros. is confident of making $100 million in the opening weekend.

But so far there have been no actual reviews. The studio has held them until this moment for a good reason. “Barbie” is a complicated release. Despite plucky stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, and a stylized production design for the ages, the movie itself is a mystery shrouded in a puzzle. Who is this movie for? Beats me.

The movie opens pre-credits with no less than Helen Mirren telling the history of dolls in a Kubrickian send up. Little girls are out on the cliffs playing with old fashioned dolls until — in a sequence set to “Also Sprach Zarathustra” — a towering Barbie appears like the obelisk in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The girls smash their old dolls violently and embrace Barbie. (The American Girl company may object to this.)

Cut to Barbie Land, all Pepto Bismol pink. All the girls are named Barbie, all the men are Ken except for one, called Alan (Michael Cera), Everything in Barbie Land is fake, and director Gerwig plays it for laughs — especially the mild sex stuff including jokes about having no genitalia, and no idea why Ken wants to spend the night with Barbie. (“We’re boyfriend and girlfriend!” he cries, befuddled.) But the laughs wear thin quickly.

Barbie’s world is turned upside down when she discovers a creeping sense of death and darkness. All of a sudden her world goes wrong: her perfect feet go flat, and she’s askew. She’s sent to see Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, in an inspired turn), who says someone is playing with her in the real world who’s got dark thoughts, basically. She says Barbie must cross the line into reality, find that girl, and set her straight. Barbie and Ken set off on their voyage in Barbie’s convertible.

They head straight for Los Angeles and Mattel, “the mothership,” which is run by Will Ferrell. He wants Barbie to get back in a box so she can be shipped back to her imaginary world. She has other ideas.

The fun really stops there. Once this charmingly nitwit duo arrive in Los Angeles, the movie loses its cool groove. Set up as a strangers in a strange land, “Barbie” suddenly become a polemic about “the patriarchy” and endless talk of female empowerment. After Mattel, they find the culprit: America Ferrara, playing a frustrated feminist whose young daughter is giving away her toys a la “Toy Story.” Now Barbie knows why she felt so bad: she’s been rejected.

There’s some wink wink stuff, and breaking of the fourth wall — Mirren’s narration interrupts a scene to point out how beautiful “Margot Robbie” is — but it all starts to sound like noisy feedback. The movie hits a speed bump when America Ferrara (who I always like) delivers a dry filibuster about Women, with a capital W. Robbie kind of stares it her agape throughout. Her thought balloon must be, “I’m glad I didn’t have to say that.”

No one is more invested in this movie than Robbie and Gosling. They are completely committed, which is the only reason why the good parts work at all. They’re very charming. But they can’t overcome the turn in the second hour into preachy politics. Gerwig seems a little lost in this film after being so assured with “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.” I don’t think she is a director for hire. She’s an auteur who’s better than studio assignments. Who is this movie for? Little girls? Young women? If they go for this, I’m happy for them. But “Barbie” is a shiny brightly wrapped gift that loses its luster very quickly. Go for the fun, ignore the rest.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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