There's no need to worry because we're not doing a toy review or an unboxing video: you Ken actually for once enjoy some shameless corporate products with your kids or even without any. With Barbie, Greta Gerwig is back in the director's chair to reimagine the popular toy from Mattel on the biggest screen, notably in the form of a fantastical comedy. Margot Robbie stars as Barbie (specifically as Stereotypical Barbie) who finds herself experiencing an existential crisis about identity, her place in the world and death. Living in Barbieland where Barbies are in control and Kens are not, she soon escapes to Los Angeles in the real world where the values aren't exactly the same. She is joined by Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling), who in fact gets inspired by the real world, and the two of them then challenge the status quo of both Mattel and Barbieland.
Appearing in other roles are America Ferrera as Mattel employee Gloria, Ariana Greenblatt as her daughter Sasha and Will Ferrell as the CEO of Mattel. Other Barbies are played by actors such as Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae and Emma Mackey while other Kens include Simu Liu and Kingsley Ben-Adir.
Perhaps the most obvious and also most important achievement of Gerwig's is that the film never comes off as an overpriced toy commercial which it could've easily been in the hands of another helmer. Instead, Gerwig manages to get her voice and talent as a filmmaker to lead the storytelling and its presentation*. Visually it ranges from solid execution of Jacqueline Durran's costume design to—may I even say—sublime work by production designer Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer's complementary decor. A very basic reading of it is that it all does ''look nice'' but what's impressive about is that the sets are constantly affecting and interacting with the characters, from matte paintings to Barbieland's houses, or from thematic use of boxes to spaces inhabited mostly by men when they're in charge.
[*As a side note, unfortunately the image wasn't masked properly in my screening which sadly affected my overall experience since I was therefore expecting an aspect ratio change, possibly to highlight a new perspective for Barbie as a character as she moves in the world. Movie theatres, do better.]
The screenplay by Gerwig and her co-writer Noah Baumbach has enough meat on its bones thematically as it tackles autonomy, self-awareness, patriarchy and even mother-daughter relationships. Occasionally those last two aren't as refined since those story beats and how characters navigate through them can slow down the tempo in a distracting way, such as in a elegantly performed but oddly staged speech by Ferrera near the end and in how Gloria and Sasha's relationship feels extremely underdeveloped before it comes a major part of the plot. Gerwig and Baumbach are able to tackle those themes much better with the film's humour which is really versatile since it uses fun physical comedy, wordplay and layered jokes to underline talking points and shifts that motivate Barbie's journey.
One way to an actor's heart seems to be through that humour and comedic tone because both Robbie and Gosling in the two most important roles are constantly elevating the film to another sphere. Robbie is able to reveal layer after layer with a slight technical tweak each time her character arc calls for one, transforming Barbie from a picture perfect toy into a person who's emotionally complex and witty. Gosling reflects that commitment to the bit back at Robbie as he is unbelievably exuberant, presenting a performance that features top-tier comedic timing and liveliness that is sure to keep a viewer's energy level high. This is a crowd-pleasing comedy done right because Gerwig and co. know how to do that for most of the runtime.
Smileys: Production design, Ryan Gosling, humour, Margot Robbie
Frowneys: Minor issues with characterisation and story
He was Kenvious before he was finally Kenlightened.