How do you solve a problem like Barbie?
For six decades, the iconic Mattel doll has been the vessel for our aspirations, ambivalence, endless analysis and outright hostility. Beloved by generations of girls and women who played for hours with Barbie and her pals Ken, Midge, Skipper and Allan, using the impossibly proportioned “play-size” version of grown-ups to spin their own life narratives, Barbie is just as despised for perpetuating the worst of an inherently sexist culture, from her simultaneously desexed and hyper-sexualized physique to representing feminism at its most commodified and co-opted.
Is Barbie a vexingly contradictory cultural touchstone or just a fun, nostalgic toy? A vessel for self-expression and agency or an empty totem of sham liberation? Yes! says Greta Gerwig in “Barbie,” wherein the “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” director has a psychedelically, if occasionally uneven, good time trying to have it all ways.
In this hot-pink mess of a movie, we see Barbie in nearly every incarnation, from Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie with a winning combination of sweetness and self-awareness) to President Barbie (underused and reliably amusing Issa Rae), Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney), Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, with her hair sheared off and her face marked up) and a flotilla of others, living together in Barbie Land, a delightfully gynocentric cul-de-sac community of sisterly support and undeferred ambition.
“Thanks to Barbie, all the problems of feminism and inequality have been solved,” coos Helen Mirren, who narrates “Barbie’s” clever “2001: A Space Odyssey”-inspired introduction. As Robbie’s Barbie performs her morning ablutions in her legendary Dreamhouse - taking an imaginary shower, drinking imaginary milk, floating down to the first floor without the benefit of the staircase Mattel forgot to give her - it’s clear that Gerwig’s “Barbie” will be a whipped confection of canonical faithfulness, knowing humor and bitterly pointed irony.
The combination mostly works, with a few exceptions. Pulling from such inspirations as “The Truman Show” and “Toy Story,” Gerwig - who co-wrote the script with Noah Baumbach - plunges her heroine into an existential crisis brought on by a dimly perceived real world that is encroaching on her plastic, reassuringly monotonous idyll. The plot of “Barbie” centers on Barbie - who’s inexplicably beset by thoughts of mortality and disappointment - setting out to find the person who’s been playing with her, so that the two of them can get back to their baseline of just dressing up and . . . dressing up again. Ken, her blond, bland maybe-boyfriend played by Ryan Gosling with flawless Malibu-era fatuousness, insists on coming along for the ride. “What if there’s beach?” he pleads when Barbie demurs. “You’re going to need someone professional to help with that.”
The running gag in “Barbie” is that Ken’s job is “beach,” and Gosling leans into that superficiality with lunkheaded charm. Once they enter the real world - also known as present-day Los Angeles - the two dolls discover a weird mirror image. In Barbie Land, Ken comes to life only when Barbie looks at him; here, the gaze is all male, all the time: When it’s directed at Ken, it’s admiring, but when it’s directed at Barbie, it’s leering and predatory. While Barbie pursues her quest, Ken discovers a universe where men are in charge - an exhilarating new order vaguely involving trucks, beer, unlimited political power and horses. Lots of horses.
Barbie’s and Ken’s twin consciousness-raisings make for some genuinely hilarious set pieces in “Barbie,” which doesn’t hesitate to throw a little side-eye at its corporate sponsor. (Will Ferrell plays a smarmy Mattel executive with feckless gusto.) Most of the film’s funniest moments belong to Gosling, who along with his fellow Kens (Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir and others) morphs into an obnoxious, mansplaining dude-bro. (Only the perpetually sidelined Allan, portrayed by Michael Cera with adroitly subtle timing, doesn’t go Full Frat House.) Gosling commits to the bit throughout Ken’s radical makeover - up to and including a surreal Malibu Beach war that rivals the “Top Gun” volleyball scene for homoerotic camp and a dream ballet featuring Gosling singing a note-perfect power ballad called “I’m Just Ken.”
It all gets very meta in “Barbie,” to the point that, when Barbie is observing that no real woman could ever live up to her own idealized image, Mirren interjects to note that Gerwig might have reconsidered having Robbie deliver that particular line. Mirren might also have added that an entire cinematic language has developed around similarly distorted expectations: There’s a moment early in the film, when Barbie drives by a Barbie Land movie theater, that eerily resembles Robbie’s Sharon Tate cruising 1970s LA in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
The zaniness of “Barbie,” combined with Gerwig’s interest in skewering the patriarchy, sometimes makes the movie a baggy, tonally dissonant viewing experience. But for the most part, she achieves a pleasing balance between the silly and the serious; she makes sure to pay homage to some of Barbie’s most cherished accessories and costumes, all the while keeping up a running commentary on sexism, objectification, consumerism and the double-triple-quadruple bind in which women have historically been forced to navigate the world - while wearing attractive heels. (Gerwig surfaces subversive notions like “Cellulite Barbie” and “Crippling Self-Doubt Barbie”; at one point, she creates an ad for “Depression Barbie,” complete with a family-size bag of Starbursts and binge-watching PBS’s “Pride and Prejudice.”)
Those grievances come to a head in one of “Barbie’s” many speeches, this one delivered by a Mattel executive assistant named Gloria (America Ferrera), who connects the aspirations, ambivalence, endless analysis and outright hostility we’ve heaped on Barbie to the aspirations, ambivalence, endless analysis and outright hostility that weigh down real-life women. Given the hyperventilating anticipation greeting “Barbie,” one could extend that pressure to Gerwig’s movie, which despite its cheery mix of Day-Glo visuals, retro wardrobe, cheesy backdrops and winking laughs, sags into feeling more like a lecture than a lift.
Viewers who have nurtured a loving if complicated relationship with Barbie might feel seen by the end of the film. Whether they’ll feel satisfied is another question entirely - especially when it comes to the film’s letdown of an ending, which was no doubt perfect on the page but lands with a deflating, didactic thud. Then again, that gnawing sense of ambivalence was no doubt precisely what Gerwig’s “Barbie” was aiming for. “It gives you a lot to think about,” a male audience member was heard to remark after a recent screening. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. Mission accomplished.
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Three stars. Rated PG-13. At area theaters. Contains suggestive references and brief strong language. 114 minutes.
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time.