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Barbie (2023) - Review

Editor's note: This review was originally published on the Carruthers, Leggetter & Whoever, which you can access here.

Now a Barbie movie has been floated for some time, with figures such as Amy Schumer and Anne Hathaway circling the project previously. With Greta Gerwig as director, her writing partner Noah Baumbach, and Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as stars, I sincerely feel this is the best possible version of what an intelligent and entertaining Barbie movie could ever be. Does this mean that the film was perfect and fulfilled upon the promise of its premise and cast and creatives? Unfortunately not. Am I mostly amazed by how much Mattel let Gerwig get away with? Most certainly. Do I feel like this is a singular unhampered creative vision? Yes, I do. Is it a wholly effective one? Not exactly. Do I also feel that Barbie has ended up inadvertently the victim of Barbenheimer (if there even has to be one)? Yes, I do. By design the marketing ploy was meant to aid both films if they were wholly successful in what they set out to do, but for me Barbie was not wholly successful and hence was in-fact hampered by the fact it was viewed after such a colossal and masterful work as Oppenheimer. Anyway each film for it’s own review.

When Barbie is good, it’s great. But when Barbie is bad… it’s not really that bad at all. It’s just a little unfunny, with a joke not landing or one of its many ideas not receiving the fleshing out or handling it needs - but at least the film has an abundance of ideas. When it’s slow in the middle and loses me, it is still setting up its emotional arcs that do impact, and is only slow, ineffective and a little droll down to the fact that the bookend opening and closing sequences in Barbieland are just far more filmically creative and successful in comparison. As a matter of fact, in regards to design on all levels, Barbie is a technical achievement that cannot be defied in its brilliance. When the film enters the real word and loses its visual lustre, it’s by design; but it is a design that isn’t backed up by any of the film's screenplay or character highlights. Much the same can be said for the music of Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, which can range from the so perfectly attuned, deliberate and brilliant to the average and droll. The highlights are again in Barbieland, where the film is repeatedly on a very high level. The film's opening, set to an everchanging meta Lizzo song had me laughing over and over, followed by Dua Lipa’s just plainly great dance track - but then the original soundtrack loses its lustre before we get to Billie Eillish’s pained and indeed touching finale ballad. Gerwig as a director here does just lose grasp on the film's humour and pace in the middle stretch. Overall, the humour is about half and half with no middle ground of incredibly funny or painful misses, but the hits are spaced out to a level where the misses pop up just when you’ve forgotten about the last one. There is a boring amount of personal issues with rules of this world and the logic of its references that I needn’t bore anybody with either, because nobody would care and I don’t think the logic of some of the film’s humour is the problem, its just that sometimes it simply doesn’t land. Overall, Gerwig has constructed with Baumbach a screenplay that balances its humour and heart with effect and lands much of its final blows both ways and so leaves one on a positive note, but isn’t as surehanded as we know either Gerwig or certainly Baumbach’s screenplays can be. Narratively, the film also hinges upon a Truman Show revelation without an initial justification and an unsatisfying eventual reveal that stumps the narrative arc of our lead character from the beginning. Logic-wise (yes, I know this is a film about a talking doll) consequences are either thick and fast or non-existent, to such a level that no grasp on the realities of the real world are capable for us as viewers.

The film is given its strength of substance by two sublime lead performances (that for Awards sake we will call one of them ‘Supporting’), amongst a sublime array of other actual supporting performances and one turn that didn’t work for me which I will comment on in the next paragraph. Firstly, Margot Robbie, who once again further solidifies her stance as the greatest actress of our era. Fearless, constantly stellar and repeatedly focussed on working with interesting talent. Here is no exception. Robbie is her sublime, interstellar movie-star self in a role so incredibly befitting of her that the film even has to comment on it as it thwarts their attempt at a certain emotional junction. Robbie is the heart of the film and her excellent performance of façade and humanity combined is the bright pulsing glue that makes this film work. Ryan Gosling however does not have the emotional burden of this film's dramatic leanings and so can, in turn, steal the show with his astounding comedy that is so well positioned in its acutely specific and highly idiosyncratic tightrope that one boggles at just how well it is pulled off. In regards to the supporting cast; Will Ferrell goes full Mugatu-from-Zoolander with a touch of seriousness for some of the film's weaker, if not still funny, detours. Rhea Perlman is employed to land a wholly random and ineffective finale decision, but with her and Robbie, the sentiment still lands (this is why you cast great actors). The other Kens are intentionally given less to do than the other Barbie’s, however Ncuti Gatwa and Kingsley Ben-Adir still stand out. Simu Liu, who is put up front however, painfully does not pop. The other Barbie’s on the other hand all stand out in disparate ways making for a firm and assured ensemble of varied comedic talent that leads these Barbieland sequences to be as effective as they are. Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Alexandra Shipp and Hari Nef are all as marvellous as they normally are – but above all it is the absolute commitment of every single cast member being on the same tone that makes this film all the more effective.

The intentional (some credit is deserved I think) core of the film is that this is a film aimed at children made for and by adults; therein the lies the rub my friend. The film simplifies, reduces and says out loud its subtext time and time again, to make things easier to grasp one feels, but then sometimes this ‘out-louding’ will include Jungian and Proust jokes which are there only for an adult crowd who will relish them or cringe at them. The film paints in incredibly broad strokes to land its commentaries that, for a child, could very well be illuminating opportunities for education, but for adults may feel blunt and uninspired. But time and time again the film thwarts its own comedic structures by having the real world be just as whacky in ways as Barbieland, and although this is refreshing because the real world sequences aren’t as interesting, they are structurally stumped. A whole film based around the Barbieland dramas could have been a vision of a tighter and funnier version of this film I feel, however we would lose some of the heart and emotion of what ends up being our lead Barbie’s story arc. Perhaps the biggest issue for the middle half for me is how it lingers, mainly with the character of America Ferrera’s Gloria who becomes a mouthpiece with dialogue that is effective for a child, but perhaps a little too simplified for an adult. For me Ferrera was also just not all that convincing as either a joyous comedic entrance to the film or a dramatically effective mouthpiece. It was an incredibly empowering speech she was given, but an incredibly hard one to pull off with absolute sincerity or knowingness of how out of place it all is when the rest of the film has done so well seeding such commentary, only for Gerwig to just give in and just put it all there. I’m sure for some that was refreshing, but for me it felt like it stopped the film dead in its tracks. This monologue was also proceeded by a somewhat funny meta joke that landed for me, but also completely undercut the emotion of the moment it was proceeding. Again we are faced with the issue of whether or not this film is an incredibly well made film for children or a mis-handled adult parable? Can it be both? Sure. But that’s in the end how it ends up around a 7 for me. Barbie could be big bold… simple… fun, but it falters I feel in a presentation that it is something that it is not.

I think 7/10. Too much good to go down any further, far too many ‘misses’ to go any higher. A slight tightening of a few elements could have helped this film an awful lot, and although the changes are minor mostly (and the few major ones too come to think of it), there are too many that don’t add up. I certainly liked Barbie, but I certainly did not love it. Gerwig with her third major feature has expanded her cinematic sensibilities and intelligently adopted for this project a boldness and poppiness, but has in a loss of subtlety also not wholly found a humour as consistent or heart as consistent as those of her two previous successes.

P.S. Rob Brydon cameo as a sugar daddy, in a cameo that could have been so perfectly made for Steve Martin or Martin Short or any number of prime Hollywood actors of that oeuvre, is not something I had on my Barbie bingo card.

P.P.S. I can’t help but feel – I could be wrong – but this film so clearly starts with a Kubrick homage and ends with one too. The final line feels like an Eyes Wide Shut homage to end on one last insanely provocative sexual comment and then cut to black (or pink). I could be very, very wrong… but could that be my man Noah’s addendum?

P.P.P.S. What a joy it is to have so much to say about a movie again, even if it only ends up a 7/10.


Tom Carruthers is a featured writer for Left Brain Media. Find more of his work here.

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