Hello World Communications
Hello World Communications - Tools & Services for the Imagination - HWC.TV

Film Festival Today

Founded by Jeremy Taylor

Film Review: Exposition Ruins “Barbie”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 19th, 2023

Film poster: “Barbie”

Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023) 1½ out of 4 stars.

How much is too much? In the case of exposition, very little goes a long way. Unfortunately, in her new film, Barbie, director Greta Gerwig (Little Women)—working with her co-screenwriter (and romantic partner) Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)—ruins every good idea and amusing premise with an overabundance of direct speech, devoid of nuance, thereby taking those few elements that work in the movie and crushing them under the weight of obvious excess. The cast is game, but the script is lame. That doggerel about sums it up.

Margot Robbie (Amsterdam) stars as one of many live-action Barbies. She is the “stereotypical” (aka, original design) Barbie, but her fellow denizens of Barbieland represent a vast array of races, ethnicities, body types, and more (including a trans Barbie), all ably portrayed by a supporting ensemble that includes Ritu Arya (Polite Society), Ana Cruz Kayne (Susie Searches), Emma Mackey (Emily), Hari Nef (Meet Cute), Issa Rae (The Photograph), Sharon Rooney (The Electrical Life of Louis Wain), and Alexandra Shipp (tick, tick… BOOM!), among others. They are powerful women, fully in charge of their (make-believe) realm.

l-r: Ana Cruz Kayne, Sharon Rooney, Alexandra Shipp, Margot Robbie, Hard New, and Emma Mackey in Warner Bros. Pictures’ BARBIE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

And then there are the Kens, an equally diverse group, all infatuated with one of the plethora of Barbies. In that bunch, we find folks like Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami) and Simu Liu (Simulant), as well as Ryan Gosling (First Man), who plays the archetypal blonde Ken who is eternally focused on wooing Robbie’s Barbie. And then there is Allan (Michael Cera, Gloria Bell), a “Ken’s buddy” model that petered out soon after his introduction in the 1960s. There’s just one of him, and that’s plenty to go around.

Following a somewhat funny (if forced) 2001: A Space Odyssey-takeoff of a prologue, the movie begins, narrated in arch tones by Helen Mirren (The Good Liar), in an idyllic pink paradise where all the various iterations of Barbie rule the land in happy harmony, the Kens always at their beck and call. The blissful repetition of the same wonderful day lived over and again, like a daydream version of Groundhog Day, is brutally interrupted when our primary Barbie (Robbie) is suddenly struck by thoughts of death. To make matters worse, her feet, usually frozen in a permanent high-heeled-tilt formation, turn flat. The horror!

l-r: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ryan Gosling, and Ncuti Gatwa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ BARBIE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

And so she goes to visit “weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon, Bombshell), whose hair is cut short (and dyed strange colors), who explains that what is happening to Robbie-Barbie is what happened to her. She is being played with, in the real world, by someone with dark thoughts, and that these are affecting her behavior. Worse, there appears to be a rip in the space-time continuum, creating a symbiotic link between that real world and Barbieland. In order to fix it, Robbie-Barbie must travel to the fabled land of Los Angeles to right the wrongs in the little girl causing all the havoc. So off she goes, with Gosling-Ken sneaking along in the back of her car.

All of the above works pretty well, with Gerwig in control of her tone and narrative. The establishment of the cinematic universe is filled with delightful details, the performances and production design on point. The messaging is all beautifully hidden within the layers of a mostly clever setup.

l-r: Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon in Warner Bros. Pictures’ BARBIE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

It’s when Barbie and Ken arrive in Venice Beach that things begin to sour, though it takes a while for the bitterness of missed opportunities to sink in. The problem lies not in the strong feminist themes and inclusive ideas, all of which are lovely, vital and necessary, but in how they are stated, over and over again, ad nauseum. As Gosling-Ken looks around and marvels at how here, in the human arena, men are in charge, that dawning mix of understanding and envy is funny. When he and others are made to explicitly voice these exact thoughts a multiplicity of times, they lose their power. Lectures make for boring drama, even if you agree with the thesis.

It’s too bad. I wanted to love the film, and it was only halfway through that I finally admitted to myself that it was a mess. I feel especially bad for America Ferrera (Cesar Chavez), an actor of real power (as are her castmates) made to bear the brunt of the monologuing as a human mother, working for Mattel, whose teen daughter thinks Barbie is dumb. She is spot on that women are faced, daily with impossible tasks and challenges, and that the patriarchy keeps everyone one down, but the repetition deadens the words’ effect. With a screenplay as much of a misfire as we have here, no one could make it work, despite all the frantic attempts to enliven the action with elaborate musical numbers (including one that recalls classic-Hollywood-musical ballets à la Singin’ in the Rain).

Simu Liu (center) in Warner Bros. Pictures’ BARBIE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

It fascinates that Mattel, the company that owns the rights to Barbie, would sign on for this, given how silly and misogynistic they here appear (and not without good reason), especially since Will Ferrell (Downhill) does his usual dumb shtick as their CEO. That’s the film I want to see: the board meeting where they signed up for this awkward publicity opportunity. That might be a reason to get the eventual Blu-ray, just to watch the behind-the-scenes machinations. Otherwise, there’s nothing to really see here.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *