By Drew Roberts
There’s been a global pink shortage. “Push” by Matchbox 20 is relevant again. Everyone is raving about Mojo Dojo Casa Houses. It’s been nearly impossible to avoid the phenomenon that is “Barbie.”
While it was easy to expect success from the Mattel-approved, star-studded film, few could’ve predicted what would have actually happened. “Barbie” isn’t just a movie; it’s a cinematic tour-de-force, a hot pink tidal wave shattering box office records with each passing week.
This is due to a number of factors: Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in leading roles, the presence of genuine comedy in a film landscape dominated by lazy, quippy MCU products and its odd opening day pairing with Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” None of these reasons, however, capture what will make “Barbie” a hot commodity on streaming services for years to come. What makes “Barbie” not just good, but great, is the vision of Greta Gerwig, one of the finest filmmakers working today.
The film starts with an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It takes an iconic scene, that of apes huddled around a monolith and discovering the killing power of a bone, and changes it. There are little girls instead of apes, dolls instead of bones and a 50-foot Robbie instead of a monolith. This seems like a message directly from Gerwig. For far too long the art of filmmaking has been a boys club. The title “director” conjures up plenty of images: Martin Scorsese going over lines with Robert DeNiro, Stephen Spielberg lying in the shark’s mouth on the set of “Jaws,” Alfred Hitchcock standing menacingly in one of his signature suits. Men have dominated the canon of film for quite some time. Things are changing, however. Now, when I think of a director, I’ll think of Gerwig in her pink jumpsuit crafting a cinematic experience unlike any other that I’ve seen.
To start, “Barbie” is fun. How refreshing is that? Few films have the courage to commit to the bit as much as this one does. Barbie Land looks both plastic and fantastic. Robbie’s heels don’t touch the ground. She floats down from the roof of her house like any Barbie would. You get a sense that no expense was spared on set or in the script.
Much of the joy comes from Gosling’s performance as Ken. I’ve maintained for a long time that Gosling is one of the best comedic actors working today. His performances in “The Nice Guys” and “Crazy Stupid Love” are enough to prove this. Ken is the highlight of the film, especially when he’s singing. I catch myself humming “I’m Just Ken” more often than I’d like to admit. Gosling brings his A-game here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with an Oscar nomination come next spring.
Interestingly enough, the very thing that won the most people over is also drawing the most criticism. In the film, Ken comes to embody a type of masculinity that has widely been dubbed as toxic, and for good reason; it’s bad for him and everyone around him. The film takes playful jabs at this form of masculinity. How it causes men to mansplain high-brow cinema to women, show them the basics of any given sport or trap them in a one-sided sing-a-long session with far too much eye contact. As a man, I laughed at all of these moments, and I could tell they came from a place of genuine frustration.
Many men online, however, did not appreciate this. They took it as a personal insult, saying that the film was anti-man. To this, I must ask, is that all it means to be a man? I’m speaking to my fellow Kens here. Must we always have our Barbies serve us? Are our identities formed by how well we can attract Barbies? Must we fight other Kens that we perceive as a threat? I don’t think so, and the film agrees with me.
In the end, Ken finds his own identity separate from Barbie. In a heartfelt conversation with the woman he’s been trying to win over he says, “But it’s ‘Barbie and Ken.’ There is no just ‘Ken.’” Barbie sees his pain, and reassures him, saying, “Maybe it’s time to discover who Ken is. Maybe it’s Barbie, and it’s Ken.”
It does feel a little silly to fight criticisms of this movie, though. Money talks, and as of my writing this, “Barbie” has made over $1 billion globally at the box office. It’s the highest grossing film from a female director as well as the highest grossing Warner Bros. film, beating out Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” The making of a “Barbie” sequel is not a matter of if, but when.
As I alluded to earlier, this unbridled success is not due to any studio decisions or connection to a larger franchise: it’s because of Gerwig. She made a film for women, a market that has been horribly underserved by Hollywood, and managed to capture the attention of the entire world. I’d also like to give a shoutout to her partner Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the script.
I’ve been a Gerwig fan for quite some time. Her debut feature “Lady Bird” is in my top 5 films of all time. Her sophomore effort “Little Women” stands tall among movies like “Parasite,” “Knives Out” and “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” all of which came out in the same year. To round things out, “Barbie” is my favorite film of the year so far.
What do all of these have in common? They have a heart and depth of humanity I don’t see in most films. I’ve probably watched “Lady Bird” around seven times. Every time I get to the airport scene — if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about — my heart aches with a special sort of anguish. I plan on rewatching “Little Women” as soon as the leaves turn orange. I’ve been dying to hear Saoirse Ronan deliver the impassioned monologue that earned her an Oscar nomination a second time. As for “Barbie,” I’ve seen it twice, and each time the pained piano keys of Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” played, chills ran across my body.
“Barbie” is fun, yes, but it’s also real. Its moving ending makes you think about how terrible and beautiful life is. I know this caught many off guard, but if you’ve seen any of Gerwig’s filmography, it’s no surprise. “Barbie,” along with everything else she’s made, is something not only to watch, but to feel. I’ve thought about “Barbie” a lot over the past few weeks. I don’t see that changing. Sometime soon, I’ll don pink again and enter the magic of Barbie Land, all the while seeing the wonder of my own world.