Barbie (Margot Robbie), the most popular of all the Barbies in Barbieland, begins experiencing an existential crisis. She must travel to the human world in order to understand herself and discover her true purpose. Her kinda-sorta boyfriend, Ken (Ryan Gosling), comes along for the ride because his own existence depends on Barbie acknowledging him. Both discover harsh truths—and make new friends –along the road to enlightenment. This bleeding of stark reality into an obsessively engineered fantasy calls to mind the revelations of “The Truman Show” and “The LEGO Movie,” but through a wry prism that’s specifically Gerwig’s.
This is a movie that acknowledges Barbie’s unrealistic physical proportions—and the kinds of very real body issues they can cause in young girls—while also celebrating her role as a feminist icon. After all, there was an astronaut Barbie doll (1965) before there was an actual woman in NASA’s astronaut corps (1978), an achievement “Barbie” commemorates by showing two suited-up women high-fiving each other among the stars, with Robbie’s Earth-bound Barbie saluting them with a sunny, “Yay, space!” This is also a movie in which Mattel (the doll’s manufacturer) and Warner Bros. (the film’s distributor) at least create the appearance that they’re in on the surprisingly pointed jokes at their expense. Mattel headquarters features a spacious, top-floor conference room populated solely by men with a heart-shaped, “Dr. Strangelove”-inspired lamp hovering over the table, yet Will Ferrell’s CEO insists his company’s “gender-neutral bathrooms up the wazoo” are evidence of diversity.