It’s Barbie’s world, we’re just living in it. After an ingenious marketing campaign that turned it into an instantly meme-able cultural sensation that inspired parties, special events and fashion trends, the Greta Gerwig-directed comedy-drama starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling finally hit cinemas on July 21.
Millions around the globe are trekking to theaters with “Barbie” tickets in hand, dressed in hot pink from head to toe, anxious to experience what’s shaping up to be the biggest movie event in recent memory. To honor a tectonic-plate moving force at the box office that already raced past the 1.4 billion US dollar mark globally and continues to outperform expectations, here are ten undeniable reasons why “Barbie” is the defining movie of 2023.
1. It’s the most subversive big studio tentpole in recent memory
Throughout the seemingly inescapable Barbie press cycle, many skeptics questioned whether a $150 million-budget summer blockbuster based on a massive 64-year-old intellectual property could genuinely end up being anything other than a sanitized Mattel-approved toy commercial. Perhaps adding fuel to the fire of doubts was the ever-polarizing stature of the fashion doll in the pop-cultural imagination as both an empowering feminist icon for girls of every age and a hyper-corporate product that promotes unattainable beauty standards and rampant materialism.
In-your-face product placement notwithstanding, Greta Gerwig has managed to dissipate such concerns with the cinematic equivalent to the Trojan Horse: a glossy blockbuster that takes several big swings in acknowledging the thorny contradictions that defines its own corporate subject matter under the guise of another populist, PG-13 summer spectacle. “Barbie” doesn’t take much time to show its true colors as a joke-fueled romp steeped in deeper meaning that doubles as a surprisingly tactile cross-section of toxic gender norms, capitalism, and self-worth — a winning formula that makes it the rare kind of crowd-pleaser that is at once laugh-out-loud funny, poignant and surprisingly insightful.
2. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s sharp script
Gerwig’s lovingly-crafted spin on Mattel’s doll plunges viewers into an idyllic feminist utopia known as Barbieland, a bubble-gum fantasy world filled with countless Barbies who run all aspects of life while Kens are treated like second-class citizens. Life in plastic is indeed fantastic until Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) starts to question her own mortality, prompting her to venture into our own human world with the aid of her starry-eyed suitor (a scene-stealing Ryan Gosling) to find out what’s causing her existential crisis and better understand herself.
Real-life power couple Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the script after previously collaborating in mumblecore standouts like “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America”, use this intriguing set-up as a baseline to wrestle with the doll’s flawed purpose as a feminist cultural object and illustrate the hilarious gender role reversals between Barbieland’s matriarchy and our own male-centric social hierarchy. The genius of Gerwig’s laser-sharp script lies in that it manages to navigate seemingly heady themes and shed light on a plethora of modern issues without pulling any punches or ever losing sight of its pulpy, low-brow pleasures. In fact, the whole thing whips by at such a clip that you’ll need repeated viewings to catch every pun and witty reference scattered throughout.
3. It’s a box-office sensation with universal appeal
A lot was riding on the so-called Barbenheimer double-feature showdown to give a much-needed jolt to the box office after years of uncertainty with the pandemic and in a dire moment for the film industry where streaming platforms, AI and the ongoing writers and actor’s strike threaten to dismantle Hollywood’s ecosystem altogether. The odd but inextricably linked same-day pairing of Christopher Nolan’s WWII biopic and Greta Gerwig’s female-coded fantasia flooded social media as an instantly meme-able pop culture craze, entering the zeitgeist in a way that unquestionably fueled interest for both summer releases.
As a meta comedy-musical with intergenerational appeal and timely themes everyone can appreciate, “Barbie” blew away forecasts, scoring the highest opening of the year ($337 million worldwide) and the most ever for a comedy and a female director. Though hardly a barometer of quality, the fact that it has handedly beaten its ticket sales projections to become the biggest crowd-pleaser in a year riddled with flailing big-budget releases is concrete proof that audiences will show up for unique, compelling stories featuring fresh characters. Whether you end up loving or hating either of these unlikely release-day siblings, the fact that the Barbenheimer phenomenon has single-handedly rekindled a love for moviegoing should be cause for celebration.
4. It’s a major breakthrough for one of the leading creators in today’s scene
Not everyone was thrilled when news broke out that beloved indie cinema darling Greta Gerwig, a former thespian who learned her trade starring in micro-budget mumblecore films before moving into the director’s chair for the Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird”, was chosen to helm a triple-digit IP-driven cash grab based on a mass-produced children’s toy. In lieu of the industry-wide trend that has become endemic in recent years, she was accused in some quarters of being the latest in a line of talented young directors to swerve into the mainstream and sell out in hopes of securing a big paycheck (a list that now includes such names as Barry Jenkins, Chloé Zhao, and David Lowery).
However, in hindsight, the latest and most critical step in Gerwig’s career yet proved to be more of a major creative breakthrough than a shameless cash grab. Rather than compromising her artistic integrity, the filmmaker seized the opportunity to make a piece of populist entertainment that not only takes a big jab at Mattel, but fearlessly challenges conventional viewpoints and encourages dialogue on real-life feminist issues, thus fitting in nicely with her earlier, lower-budgeted work.
5. Ryan Gosling’s Ken-Tastic performance is one of 2023’s best
It might sound hasty to claim that an über-talented two-time Oscar nominee with such a stacked résumé as Ryan Gosling might have possibly given us his best performance to date as a lovestruck beach-loving doll, but the balancing act of over-the-top theatricality and straight-faced frailty he pulls off as Barbie’s perpetual suitor is unlike anything we’ve seen him do in his career.
Contrary to what his reputation as a handsome Hollywood leading man may suggest, Gosling has shown a natural gift for slapstick and is never afraid of committing to the bit (again, any “The Nice Guys” truther worth their salt will vouch for his comedic chops). Right off the bat, you can tell the Canadian actor is having the time of his life playing Ken, whether it’s desperately trying to catch Barbie’s attention, igniting a Kensurrection in Barbieland, putting together his dream “Mojo Dojo Casa House”, or doing Gene Kelly-style dance routines. These sorts of uproariously wacky comedic performances seldom get recognized on the biggest stages, but in the off chance it doesn’t yield any accolades this fall, Gosling’s Ken has carved a permanent place for himself in the all-time pantheon of cinematic himbos.