Film review: Barbie

Although the early scenes suggest that Greta Gerwig’s film about the pop-culture-conquering doll might have some serious satirical bite, what follows is less a movie than a collection of meme-able moments, writes Alistair Harkness

Barbie (12A) **

There has been much hype surrounding Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s film about the pop-culture-conquering doll whose weird history as a frenemy of feminism provides what little substance there is to this DayGlo disappointment. Less a movie than a collection of meme-able moments, its much-hoped-for subversion amounts to few gentle digs at the film’s corporate paymasters folded into a derivative story in which “Stereotypical Barbie” (played by Margot Robbie) undergoes an existential awakening that forces her to leave Barbieland and enter the real world. There she’s soon horrified to discover that women aren’t in charge and all the positive and inspiring messages she thought Barbies were providing little girls have instead had a detrimental effect.

Though initially this suggests the film is going to have some bite, Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach don’t really follow through. Abandoning the internal logic of a promising premise that ties the interior life of Barbie to the way she’s played with in the real world, they fall back instead on heavily ironic fish-out-of-water gags and insider jokes about cancelled toy-lines and absent genitalia, all the while inuring the film against criticism with lots of wink-wink meta-commentary designed to make people who don’t fall in line with the film’s blanket marketing campaign feel like spoilsports.

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Part of the frustration, though, comes from the fact that its high concept ideas have already been done to death in the likes of The Lego Movie, Enchanted, The Truman Show and even last year’s underrated Don’t Worry Darling, to which this film often feels like a perky flip-side, especially when poor dimwit Ken (Ryan Gosling) discovers something called “patriarchy” and, through sheer dumb luck, manages to remake Barbieland in his own image.

Barbie may be scratching at something interesting in satirising the easy ride mediocre men have in the world, but it’s also one of the bigger ironies that it only really comes alive as a movie when Ken gains some agency and Gosling is allowed to cut loose. He gets the lion’s share of the laughs – though at the packed screening I attended even these were intermittent and forced. As for Robbie, while perfectly cast, it’s just a shame her character arc is so insipid, filled as it is with feminist-sounding platitudes and, at one point, a plea for an ordinary Barbie, something this film, sadly, has no trouble delivering.

General release from 21 July