Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) awakens one day in Barbie Land to find that she is suddenly plagued with thoughts of dying and a patch of cellulite on her leg. Receiving forbidden knowledge from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) about the nature of existence, Stereotypical Barbie sets off to the Real World - with Ken (Ryan Gosling) in tow. However, when she arrives in Los Angeles, she discovers that Barbie is not beloved by all women and that Mattel - led by its CEO (Will Ferrell) - is desperate to get her back in a box...
From the very opening beats of 'Barbie' to the very last scene, it's clear that Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are more than willing to walk right up and meet every potential gripe one might have about the titular doll. Every possible criticism or compliment you have about Barbie as an idea is addressed here, so much so that it can sometimes feel like Greta Gerwig, and by extension the entire cast, loses itself trying to chase them all down. Indeed, 'Barbie' is a movie with big, uncomfortable ideas and multitudes of disparate influences going on. There's a joke about a Proust Barbie, and even a crack about the creator's own chequered history with the IRS, to give you some kind of idea of what we're dealing with.
Aside from that, 'Barbie' wrings every bit of charm and fun out of itself. There's never a moment lost in the screen time, and the jokes are fired off at a rapid pace while the plot thunders along. Margot Robbie's performance is perfectly pitched to the see-saw tone of the story, and there are moments of real emotional substance - particularly in the final moments - in her performance. It'd be easy to make all of the camp and obvious jokes about her being the perfect Barbie - Helen Mirren even makes one herself at one point - yet it's never done with a meanness of spirit, which is sometimes a hallmark of these kinds of meta-comedies.
Ken, on the other hand, gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop throughout. Ryan Gosling may have found his calling as playing a loveable, misguided himbo, but it's his willingness to play him in a completely pathetic way that makes it so compelling. It's true - Ken doesn't have a house, or a car, or even his own clothes. Instead, he's just Ken and Gosling plays that desperation for comedic effect with ease. Simu Liu and Kingsley Ben-Adir, also playing different variations of Ken, equally ham it up while Michael Cera's Allan is the misfit of the men. You've also got walk-on cameos from all sorts of expected and unexpected people, all of them deployed at just the right moment and delivered with a knowing nod.
Thus far, Greta Gerwig's oeuvre has always cut deep and close to the human condition in such a way that few directors have in recent years. 'Lady Bird', in particular, was a masterpiece in how it so cleanly captured the rage and awkwardness of pre-Internet teenagedom. 'Little Women' was one of the sharpest literature adaptations in years, while 'Frances Ha' was a thrilling debut with a confidence far beyond its years. Likewise, her co-writer Noah Baumbach has equally been adept at needling thorny subjects with care and sympathy. You only need to watch 'Marriage Story' to get how observant he can be. In 'Barbie', both writers are trying to bring substance and depth to a creature that - at least on the surface - has none.
Yet, in the final moments, just as the movie looks like it's beginning to really creak under its own weight, Gerwig's direction and Robbie's performance - together with a terrific extended cameo by Rhea Perlman - make the whole thing take flight. It's here where most people are going to be reaching for tissues and rightfully so. It grasps at something ethereal yet human in a really profound and earnest way, and right after cracks one last joke that'll have you chuckling all the way back to the car. 'Barbie' isn't perfect, but that's the point. It lives in the uncomfortable and the awkward, but you're dazzled by it all.