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Review: 'Barbie' Becomes Death, Destroyer of Worlds

By Jason Adams | Film | July 20, 2023 |

By Jason Adams | Film | July 20, 2023 |


“Do you guys ever think about dying?”

As featured in the trailers for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, that line—spoken suddenly and out-of-character by Barbie (Margot Robbie) herself in the middle of one of her nightly Barbie-land dance-parties—has already, before the film has even hit theaters, been turned into merchandise. T-shirts and fanny-packs—all the better for people to wear to their opening weekend screenings of the film, rendering the ouroboros of Capitalism terrifyingly complete. You can practically feel in your belly the hot-pink levers and boy-blue gears of Fate snapping into place—unleash the Pound Puppy hounds of hell, the apocalyptic horsemen neighing their Nazgûl-ish song from beneath the cinema floorboards. “Life in plastic… is fantastic… for no mere mortal can resist… the evil of… corporate synergy…”

Which is to say that yes, Barbie, I do think about dying. And I thought about dying a lot while watching your movie. I spent more time thinking about my own mortality during Barbie than I did during Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, also out this weekend, which has been touted as Barbie’s thematic opposite and which features actual ashen corpses. Gerwig’s film could have used a few more ashen corpses. Ashen corpses would’ve felt more honest.

Barbie’s big dance-party, the one where she suddenly questions everyone’s mortality, comes on after a couple of prologues that are there to orient us into the fantastic plastic world of Barbieland; all of which have been featured in one or several of the film’s hyped-up promotional materials. That teaser that riffed on Kubrick’s 2001? That’s the opening sequence of the film. Then there is the one where Barbie gets dressed a la Cher in Clueless and wanders through her day-glo dreamhouse waving to her Barbie neighbors—all also there. I normally try to not watch trailers and clips before seeing a film, but with Barbie they’ve been inescapable. And also, I really needed to answer the question for myself—“What the fuck is happening?” Why is my beloved, extremely talented Greta Gerwig, maker of the exquisite Frances Ha and Lady Bird and Little Women, making a Barbie movie?

I more or less understand the answer after watching the film, but I feel no relief from it. It’s as hollowed out as a Midge doll’s belly after an emergency cesarean. It’s because, as Lars von Trier’s fox friend told us, Chaos Reigns. There is no meaning anymore.

There is plenty of plastic though. Barbieland, from plastic sea to plastic sea, is rife with it. And everything’s going great until one day Barbie starts to be aware that her oceans are choking with it. It starts off small—burned toast and bizarre thoughts. But then the perfect arch of her high-heeled feet goes flat, and before you know it she and her Ken (Ryan Gosling) are being thrust onto an adventure into the real world to find out what’s making her human owner (Ariana Greenblatt) and her human owner’s mom (America Ferrera) so blue that their bad vibes are insinuating themselves there into that pink doll utopia.

It’s all very Splash meets The Lego Movie—especially the latter as Will Ferrell, playing the CEO of Mattel, is once again called upon to be the stand-in for all dopey human men (which is, admittedly, a thing he is pretty good at). But as Barbie comes to realize that things are hard out there for a human girl, and as Ken comes to realize that the patriarchy is pretty rad, the line between fantasy and reality begins to crumble—and when even our dreams can’t escape the poison cloud of toxic behavior, what in the pink Corvette hell remains? Ashen corpses, I tells ya.

So Barbie, like all of us, is having an existential crisis. Barbie the doll, Barbie the character, Barbie the film. I am Barbie. You are Barbie. Ken is Barbie. Barbie is Barbie is Barbie is Barbie. Allan (Michael Cera) remains Allan, thank goodness—a glimmer of hope perhaps? Until you see the Allan posters and t-shirts anyway, and realize that “remaining one’s self” can be branded and commodified as easily as uniformity—that’s the great lesson of Barbie, and of our age, really. Individuality is posture. It’s an overpriced puffy pink Riot Grrl sticker on an Apple laptop sitting on the counter of a Starbucks. We are content. Not content. Never content. Con. Tent.

Gerwig and I are close enough in age, our births falling into that amorphous six-year period of time that straddles Gen-X and Millennial-hood, where the idea of “selling out” has been one of the great battle lines of our lives. Kurt Cobain came along and slapped the Cabbage Patch Dolls right out of our hands, but then a pop angel called Britney Spears floated down from heaven and handed them right back. Then Kurt killed himself, Britney shaved her head and attacked a paparazzo with an umbrella, and we were left standing here confused, clutching to our Lion-O lunchboxes for dear life.

Enter Barbie. College courses, dissertations, and documentaries have bubbled up with enough conjectures and theories about what that little genital-less doll means to girls, to boys, and to other, to populate Barbieland ten times over. And Gerwig seems attuned to every single one of them. Indeed her script with partner Noah Baumbach spends so much time and so much effort weaving its way in between them all you might wonder if they just asked A.I. to turn Barbie’s Wikipedia page into a movie script. It added verbs and voila, one hundred million dollars on opening weekend.

This isn’t to say, believe it or not at this point, that the movie doesn’t have lots to offer. Margot Robbie grabs hold of this role and shoots off fireworks of charm and pathos from it—so too does Gosling. Everybody on-screen is having a grand time being great big and goofy, and Gerwig tailors every role to every person like the perfect pair of palazzo pants. (Kate McKinnon playing “Weird Barbie” was built just for me, and I consumed her happily like I do my favorite coffee order every morning.) The production design and the costumes are out-of-this-world fun. The script lands a ton of laughs—this will not be a spoiler, but the final line of the film is one for the record books, and I have a feeling that thinking it up is what convinced Gerwig to tackle this whole project in the first place.

But Barbie is working so frantically and exhaustingly to justify its own existence that at some point, top-like, it spins 360 degrees right back around to, “Wait, why are we here doing this again?” It can megaphone-blast the streets of Barbieland with all the speeches about a woman’s confused and confusing role in modern society that it likes, but the real reason is the reason Gerwig has given in interviews—that these are the only kinds of movies that Hollywood is making. And it’s now all artists’ professional jobs to sneak our Flintstones vitamins inside of our Fruity Pebbles cereal, no matter how much sugar we start choking on.