“Yay space!” Jack Murphy reviews Barbie.

Never before have three words sent shockwaves through the modern film industry quite like “Greta Gerwig’s Barbie”, quickly becoming the movie event of the decade. Its marketing campaign has become so deeply embedded in the public consciousness (even without the hilarious Oppenheimer comparisons) that it’s been nearly impossible to go anywhere without being bombarded by all things pink. But what is most impressive is that not only is Barbie one of the funniest studio comedies in recent memory, but also one of the best films of 2023.

Even in her third solo outing, director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) continues to prove herself as one of Hollywood’s most unique talents. Evident from its ingenious opening sequence—a hilariously inventive mashup of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a Barbie history lesson—this isn’t just any ordinary Barbie movie. As explained by our cheeky, fourth wall-breaking narrator (Helen Mirren), the Barbies of Barbieland go about their days in elaborate plastic Dream Houses donned in all shades of pink, obliviously believing that their existence has solved any problems of feminism and equal rights in the real world. The Barbies rule the world here, all while the Kens exist solely to be noticed by them.

Margot Robbie plays ‘Stereotypical Barbie’, the doll that pops into your head when someone says “think of a Barbie!” She’s living her best day every day, complete with perfect hair, sleepovers, and choreographed dance parties. There’s just one problem: this Barbie is suffering from irrepressible thoughts of death. Hesitantly accompanied by a clingy, overenthusiastic Ken (Ryan Gosling), she must set off on an adventure to the real world to get to the bottom of her newfound existential crisis. Here, she discovers that the real world isn’t what it’s made out to be, all while Ken begins his own journey of self-discovery when he’s introduced to the concept of patriarchy. It’s a very clever setup that perfectly subverts the idea of Barbie as a whole, unpacking everything the doll stands for and recontextualizing it for a new generation (a very on-brand move from Gerwig).

It’s a vibrant delight of a film that strikes a perfect balance between the exaggerated campiness expected from the IP and the signature charm and emotional richness that Gerwig and writing partner Noah Baumbach bring to their scripts. There’s an infectious playfulness not only to the consistently hilarious screenplay but also to Gerwig’s direction that propels the film forward at a breezy pace, even more so when punctuated by the film’s punchy pop soundtrack. Inspiration comes from throughout the history of cinema, from the Kubrick-inspired opening, to the musical numbers and dance sequences that look straight out of the sound stage musicals of the 1950s and 60s. Practical sets, painted backdrops and lush, vibrant costumes abound as the fully-realized Barbieland is a sight to behold; a masterful feat of production design that will make you wish you could live there yourself.

What we have here is a director being given free rein to make the exact film that she wants to make, and this shows in the heap of ideas being brought to the table. With a film like this however, the balancing act of executing every idea is practically impossible, even for a director like Gerwig. But the brief stumbles of clutter and chaos are outnumbered by how much the film is able to pull off so brilliantly.

One such aspect is the pitch-perfect casting. Of course, this is Margot Robbie’s film through and through. Her performance is one of the most effervescent and dynamic of the year, walking a fine line between camp and sincerity and pulling it off with ease. But a fierce challenger emerges in the form of Ryan Gosling as Ken. Never has there been a comedy performance quite like Gosling’s here, bringing with him a confident understanding of what makes the perfect comedy performance. Everything from a simple facial expression to a passing line delivery is fine-tuned to deliver the maximum amount of laughs. It’s nothing short of a career-defining role that will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come (with potential Oscar chances perhaps?). The supporting cast should not be ignored either, featuring a who’s-who of stars like Will Ferrell as the bumbling CEO of Mattel, America Ferrera as Gloria (a human who befriends Robbie’s Barbie), as well as a scene-stealing appearance from Michael Cera as Ken’s “buddy”, Allan.

At its core, Gerwig’s film delivers a surprisingly strong emotional hook in Barbie’s conundrum of being caught between her idyllic plastic life and the ever-changing, complicated real world. While it’s definitely strange to see a Barbie movie of all things tackle themes of the human condition and the meaning of life, it fits Gerwig and Baumbach’s sensibilities like a glove. It’s existential without feeling overwhelming and delivers its timely messages without feeling heavy handed. This leads to a surprisingly versatile film that covers more ground than you would expect it to; a poignant mishmash of 2000s comedy aesthetics and the quirky modern style of its writing duo.

So it turns out that life in plastic sure is fantastic, as Barbie is a star-studded, subversive stroke of genius from Gerwig and Baumbach. Despite not every idea sticking the landing as well as others, it still amounts to a visually striking, effortlessly exuberant film that’s bound to become a future comedy classic. Now let’s just hope that Hollywood doesn’t start trying (and failing) to replicate its lightning-in-a-bottle success.

Barbie is in cinemas from 21st July 2023.


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