The beginning of Greta Gerwig’s career was niche. Her first film as an actor and co-writer, Joe Swanberg’s largely improvised “mumblecore” feature Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), opens with Gerwig sitting with only a bath towel on her lap while a boyfriend and she laugh and pick lint from their skin. It’s a hot Chicago summer, she’s slacking at her pointless job, and she wants to be in love. Later they kiss on the sand wearing snorkeling goggles. After they break up, she cry-shouts a soliloquy at her friend in the bathtub, again in goggles and swimsuits: “I get really frustrated because I love things so much and I feel like what I do is so trite and small.” She talks sweetly to her second boyfriend, a dorky co-worker (Andrew Bujalski), through a rainbow-slinky telephone. She cries and asks her third boyfriend, “Do you ever think there’s something manic about having crushes?” There are stains on Bujalski’s underpants. She sifts through her third boyfriend’s many antidepressants as they talk about their disappointments. They play the trumpet twice. In the last scene, they play it naked in the tub.
Swanberg, Bujalski and other mumblecore peers found moderate levels of success, but only Greta Gerwig soared. Her career reached a new stage with her Noah Baumbach collaborations, first as her director in Greenberg (2010) and soon as her co-writer and husband. He directed her starring role in Frances Ha (2012), an iconic late-hipster film about an aimless 27-year-old dancer, flailing around New York after her best friend moves out to live with her rich boyfriend. She starred in a 2015 film involving a pickle entrepreneur, a “ficto-critical anthropologist”, and sperm donation among friends (Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan). But soon, she was directing. Her first two films, Lady Bird and Little Women, were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture; together, they racked up 11 nominations. The first netted a profit of $69m; the latter, around $180m. Besides directing indie films and releasing them online, Swanberg now runs a VHS store inside a pizza shop.
Lady Bird, while far more polished than the films of her mumblecore period, was a very personal, semi-autobiographical film about an ambitious but middle-class Sacramento high schooler interested in theatre and escaping to the East Coast; a character’s band is called L’enfance nue, after Maurice Pialat’s devastating 1968 film about a desperately unhappy child in foster care. Little Women was an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel of the same name; its Oscar win, Gerwig’s only to date, was for Best Costume Design.
Gerwig’s third feature is another departure in all respects, save an interest in female existence. Gerwig is, obviously, no longer mumblecore; she is no longer even an arthouse filmmaker, or even, perhaps, an especially artistic one. As recently reported by the New Yorker, the genesis of the Barbie movie was not so much a private inspiration as the bankruptcy of Toys R Us in 2017. Mattel largely sold its Barbie dolls through the retailer; the demise of the store, combined with the rise of the iPad baby generation, meant that sales had been plummeting. In 2018 Mattel installed a new CEO, Ynon Kreiz, who took a cue from the Marvel playbook and decided that it should pivot into the movies. Mattel got Margot Robbie onboard, and Robbie brought in Gerwig.
[See also: Oppenheimer’s tormented soul]
Gerwig insisted on retaining creative control: according to the New Yorker article, when Mattel and Warner Bros. asked to see the script, she “presented executives with a poem in the style of the Apostles’ Creed”. Nonetheless, the budget is reportedly set at $145m. As Gerwig’s agent explained, “Greta and I have been very consciously constructing a career. Her ambition is to be not the biggest woman director but a big studio director. And Barbie was a piece of IP [intellectual property] that was resonant to her.” Everyone is happy. The star of Black Panther is making a Barney the Dinosaur film, another Mattel property. Lena Dunham is making one about Polly Pocket. All told, Mattel has 45 movies in development. Beyond toys, Eva Longoria recently made a movie about the crisp snack Cheetos, and Jerry Seinfeld is working on Unfrosted: The Pop Tart Story.
Few readers will have escaped the Barbie ad campaign. The Instagram filters; the pink billboards; the pink Barbie DreamHouse listed on Malibu Airbnb. The Barbie shoes and clothing collections (at Forever 21, Zara, Boohoo, Gap, Hot Topic, Target, Torrid, even a collab with Billie Eilish). There are Barbie Xbox controllers. There are Barbie candles and luggage. There is Barbie frozen yogurt and ice cream and lemonade and pasta. In the UK, a pink Doctor Who Tardis appeared at Tower Bridge. There have been many trailers and many more memes.
The Barbie movie is about Barbie getting expelled from Barbieland into “the real world”. At first, she starts thinking about death; then, she gets cellulite; her high-heeled feet go flat. “Imperfect,” she has to leave. A woman who looks kind of butch holds up a heel and a Birkenstock and tells her that – by accepting the Birkenstock – she “can know the truth about the universe”. (Birkenstocks have been on high-fashion runways for ten years.) She rollerblades with Ken (Ryan Gosling); they get arrested; the head of Mattel (Will Ferrell) tries to send them back to Barbieland.
There are expensive visual tricks, such as when Barbie gets out of her fuzzy pink slippers and her heels remain elevated, or when Kens ride invisible horses to their Mojo Dojo Casa Houses. The film concludes with a long and flashy music number, as did Gerwig and Baumbach’s White Noise. That was for boys; this is for girls. Many big-name musicians have been thrown together; so have many big-name actors. The acting is, of course, mannered; the production design is, of course, immaculate. The film is a bit too heavy-handed to be funny – it is too self-conscious for children, and too tame for adults – but there are plenty of moments when we are cued to laugh.
Will the Barbie film make anyone feel anything? For all that Mattel will profit from Gerwig’s name, there’s little here of her private reserve of outstanding sensitivity, messiness and appreciation for the beauty of what she may have, in a more angsty youth, called “the real world”. In their place are merely hollow overtures to feminism and inclusivity, up to and including a “critique” of Robbie’s casting. This is, at heart, a candy-coloured product placement starring an extremely thin and gorgeous blonde.
Defending herself against accusations of selling out, Gerwig has said, “Things can be both/and. I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.” But the film comes across not as complex or even ambivalent about its source material, so much as indifferent. These doubts about its purpose are clear from its tagline: “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” But what if you just don’t care about toys? Or what if the things that make you love movies could never have anything to do with toys? The tagline reveals the profoundly IP-minded logic of the film – which, whatever Gerwig’s intentions, seems to have won the day. The appeal of the movie stems from – and ends with – the fact that you’ve seen the ads.
Gerwig, whose earlier films were about the delight and sadness of the smallest human movements, possessed a mesmerising, awkward charm, and a frailty that made her seem so human. Now she seems poised to become the big-studio director she apparently wishes to be – indeed, she has already committed to two Chronicles of Narnia movies. The Barbie film may claim that “imperfections” make us all the more perfect, but with her move to the mass market, Gerwig has become too perfect by half.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special