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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Barbie // Film Review

Over the course of the extravagant press tour for Barbie, director Greta Gerwig has named several dozen films which she credits as helping to shape the cotton candy world of Barbieland. The Wizard of Oz is an obvious touchstone, and one number late in the film owes an abundant debt to Singin in the Rain, but the most telling of Gerwig’s references is perhaps Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In Cherbourg, a tale of solemn and settled romances told against a primary colour palette, every character speaks entirely in song. The melodies are simple, but through joy and despair the lives on display follow a precise and consistent rhythm, adding whimsy and beauty even to their lowest moments. You can understand then, what makes it such a perfect match for Gerwig’s Barbie.

Gerwig’s film enlists an A-List set of musicians, from Lizzo to Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice, imbuing her world with some of the best musical talent working today. These are then deployed in place of a typical score; Dua Lipa’s ‘Dance The Night Away’ drives a show-stopping dance early in the work, while Billie Eilish’s ‘What Was I Made For’ embellishes its bittersweet denouement. Consequently, Barbieland feels more like a music video than the set of a drama, and this is absolutely to its credit. Despite featuring only a single conventional musical number, it feels otherworldly in a way that few fantasy spaces do, with lyrical dialogue and a greatest hits playlist combining nicely with an editing style leaning heavily on montage and an all-plastic set that never tries to be anything but a stage. In short, Barbieland is a triumph, and a testament to Gerwig’s power as one of our great mainline directors.

It is at once deftly bold and slightly disappointing then, that the central conceit of Barbie is the infection of this fantasy with elements of real world mundanity. Some of these are played for laughs, such as Ken’s discovery and subsequent disappointment in the patriarchy, while other subplots like the mother-daughter melodrama between Gloria and Sacha feel much too rote for a film as otherwise audacious as this one. The fish out of water comedy that Gerwig mines from bringing Barbie and Ken to our world is largely effective, but distracts from its incredible achievements elsewhere. Whereas Act One is the stuff of Powell & Pressburger’s dreams, Act Two owes more to the likes of Elf (with Will Ferrell’s casting as a Mattel CEO feeling particularly pointed).

Anchoring us through all of this are the performances from Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, both of whom give everything to their roles and sustain the film through even its most tonally confused moments. Gosling is getting deserved praise for his turn as the most endearing of toxic mansplainers, but Robbie’s turn is the heart and soul of Barbie, as Gerwig encourages from her the captivating aura of a true movie star. Even at her most exuberant, there is a muted sadness in the eyes of Robbie’s ‘Stereotypical Barbie’, and likewise there is always a spark of hope flickering when she's at her most upset. It is the kind of performance so clear-cut and inviting that despite the character’s more complex and existential elements, her journey is one instantly comprehensible to adults and children alike. Gerwig and Baumbach’s script is written for those aged 12 and up, but Robbie’s performance really makes this a film for everyone.

Many have wondered what drew Gerwig to such a commercial project as Barbie - and make no mistake, it is a commercial product even if it slips in the occasional self-deprecating gag - but what Warner Bros have empowered Gerwig to do here is express her cinephile knowledge on a scale worthy of her talents. In terms of theme and filmic innovation, Barbie is no downgrade from the likes of Lady Bird or Little Women, and there is no reason yet to believe that her upcoming Narnia collaborations with Netflix will fare any differently.

There are missteps here, as one can’t help but wish that Gerwig had fully invested in the world she and her collaborators so lovingly designed without the safety net of more ‘familiar’ real-world comedy, but the good certainly outweighs the bad, and Gerwig’s indisputable gift as an “actor’s director” affords enough substance to carry us through even its sloppier middle act. Barbie is a show-of-force for Gerwig as a studio director on par with popular auteurs like Christopher Nolan and Jordan Peele, and if she can do this with Barbieland there is no telling where she could go next.

Just so long as it isn’t that Polly Pocket movie, of course.


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