Greta Gerwig's Barbie adaptation is an inventive, visually stunning take on a pop culture icon, but Ryan Gosling's Ken is its true highlight

Film Review by Philip Concannon | 19 Jul 2023
  • Barbie
Film title: Barbie
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrara, Will Ferrell, Kate McKinnon
Release date: 21 July
Certificate: 12A

Life in plastic is fantastic for the residents of Barbie Land, the vividly realised location where we spend the opening third of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Everything is perfect and everyone knows their place, but the complications of reality are beginning to seep into this fantasy. “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Barbie (Margot Robbie) suddenly blurts out during a dance number, a moment of introspection that sends her perennially pointed feet crashing to the floor and seems to knock her whole life off kilter. Yes, this Barbie is having an existential crisis, and Barbie’s screenplay, by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, sends their iconic blonde protagonist to the real world on a voyage of self-discovery.

Before she hits the road, being in Barbie Land is just as pleasurable for the viewer as it is for these toys. The depiction of this world is a triumph of imaginative design and skilful craftmanship, from the life-size dolls’ houses to the way the characters move as if they are being played with by some unseen child. Barbie floats from her balcony into her pink car, and when Ken (Ryan Gosling) attempts to surf and hits a cardboard wave, he flies through the air chaotically like a doll chucked across the room. The modes of transport that carry characters between realms are a particular delight, and after too many dreary blockbusters, it’s a joy to see a big studio summer film that uses colour so vibrantly.

Barbie is structured in distinct thirds, and each feels slightly less effective than the last. The midsection finds Barbie encountering disillusionment and patriarchy in Los Angeles, with the latter revelation being a particular shock when women rule the roost in Barbie Land and Kens are just an accessory. The problem with men is central to the film's climax, which stalls for speeches about the cognitive dissonance of being a woman in today’s world, and the inclusion of the character played by Rhea Perlman towards the end doesn’t make sense at all. Another figure who doesn’t quite fit here is the Mattel CEO, played by Will Ferrell. The timid jabs at Mattel feel like a fig leaf, allowing Gerwig and Baumbach to play at being subversive and evade accusations of making nothing more than a commercial, but it’s hard to do that in a glossy product-driven blockbuster produced by Mattel.

Gerwig's film doesn’t entirely convince but it’s often smart and funny, it’s visually striking, and it boasts one truly wondrous performance. Margot Robbie may be the star turn but this is Ryan Gosling’s movie. Some of the best scenes focus on Ken slowly getting to grips with the notion of a patriarchy before reinventing himself as that ultimate avatar of unbridled masculinity: 1970s Sylvester Stallone. Gosling’s comic timing and physicality is perfectly attuned to this character, and in a film that’s constantly (and rather tiresomely) winking at the audience, there’s a blissful sincerity about his work that elevates every moment he’s on screen. “She’s everything. He’s just Ken,” Barbie’s relentless marketing blitz has repeatedly informed us, but after watching Gosling in this movie it’s obvious that he’s everything. The rest is just fine.