“She’s everything. He’s ” So runs the humorous tagline formovie about the Mattel doll – and her hunky male sidekick. Inspiring a flurry of memes when it was released in April, the slogan poked fun at the fact that ever since Ken came into existence in 1961, he has been seen as a slightly pointless adjunct.
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Yet, as the reviews of Barbie have flooded in this week, one obvious irony has stood out: the eternal supporting player is actually the star. For no-one has been getting greater notices for the film than Ryan Gosling, playing the blonde-haired “stereotypical Ken” amid the innumerable variety of Kens within Barbie Land.
Thanks to his full-throttle transformation (bleached blonde hair, fake tan, shaved legs for his neon-rollerblading scenes), impeccable comic delivery, and riotous song and dance numbers, Gosling has been earning some of the best notices of his career. “Everyone is perfectly cast. But it’s Gosling who knocks it out of the park,” wrote Kirsten Acuna on; While Beth Webb for declared: “Every muscle flex, every hair flick, every guitar strum lands perfectly. There are moments where he will rob you of breath.”
The actor has certainly gone all in on the movie, not just on-screen but off. “It’s the role I was born to play, I’ve had this Ken-ergy, if you will. And this Ken-ergy is alive in me now,” he told, alongside a host of other hilarious, pun-filled interviews he has given around the film’s release.
A twist on the himbo icon
Gosling’s performance, of course, is only as good as the writing. Where Ken has always been cast as the simple, subservient partner to Barbie, then Gerwig and her partner and co-writer Noah Baumbach offer an inspired twist: the story sends Margot Robbie’s “stereotypical Barbie” and Gosling’s Ken to the ‘Real World’ , and while Barbie starts glitching in a bout of existentialism, we realise that Ken suffers from his own insecurities and anxieties too. He goes rogue, discovers the patriarchy, and decides to launch it back in Barbie Land.
From the simpering, lovelorn boyfriend of old, he morphs into semi-villain mode, an incel-in-training, leading his fellow Kens in revolt. He re-brands the land as his “Ken-dom” and takes over Barbie’s Dreamhouse, turning it into a “Mojo Dojo Casa House”. All the other Barbies, bar Robbie’s protagonist, are relegated to serving the Kens, and handing out unending “brewski beers”, and Ken takes to parading about sporting a giant mink coat and a headband – the costume director Jacqueline Durran has obviously also had a riot here.
The comic foil for Robbie’s wide-eyed straight woman, Gosling happily leans fully into his formative all-singing, all-dancing years as a Disney Mouseketeer child star, most memorably with the hilarious performance of soft rock ballad, written by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt. His Bob Fosse-esque dance routine with all the other Kens – mid Ken vs Ken battle – is both a technical wonder and, in the way he pulls it off so convincingly, a highly-amusing reminder of just how much Gosling is willing to commit to the idea of being Ken. He embodies precisely all the Ken-ergy needed for the part.
(Credit: Alamy/Warner Bros)
Gosling’s other skill is that even in Ken’s most deluded acts, it’s difficult to truly hate him. He’s ultimately a misguided, slightly pathetic and pitiable character, as he peacocks around, trying to work out who he is after years in Barbie’s shadow, before acknowledging his vulnerability. Gerwig told thethat she was taken by Gosling’s open-heartedness in portraying Ken’s journey: “He was freeing masculinity for everyone on set in this extraordinary way. And these men [on set] loved it. I think they felt released.”
What makes Gosling’s performance feel so revelatory is that he’s an actor so associated with films of a dark or bleaker nature; brooding, troubled characters like in Drive and A Place Beyond the Pines, or men struggling with addiction on the edge of society as in Blue Valentine and Half Nelson. He can do light entertainment, as he so skilfully showed in rom-coms Crazy Stupid Love and the all-singing, all dancing La La Land, as well as underrated comedy-thriller The Nice Guys. But he’s never been quite much fun.
Is comedy given its awards due?
Given that his turn as Ken in Barbie is as close to perfect as you’d want an out-and-out comedy performance to be, some people are already suggesting that this role could take him to Academy Award glory. Jamie Jirak from ComicBook.com was first out of the gate, suggesting onlast week after an early screening: “Give Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination, I’m dead serious!”, a sentiment echoed this week by Lucy Ford in , who affirmed “He should honestly be nominated for an Oscar”.
Is it fanciful thinking to think he could even go ahead and win? History shows that actors in comedies rarely succeed at the Oscars when pitted against those in emotionally wrought dramas and biopics, the likes of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny and Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets being exceptions. And of the actors who have won for comic roles, few have given performances quite as absurd, exaggerated and plain silly as Gosling. Then again, given the way– the box-office battle between Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s nuclear bomb epic – both released tomorrow – has gripped the world, it might be that Academy Awards voters are keen to see this duel play out once again at the podium, with a host of nominations for both.
But while film critic Ellen E Jones thought Gosling “smashed it” as Ken, she doesn’t think this will hold much sway with the Academy. “I don’t fancy Ryan’s chances much at the Oscars,” she tells BBC Culture. “Firstly because, even though we’re in this era of Awards show reform, supposedly in line with social changes in the world more generally, I believe the tedious self-seriousness which surrounds these ceremonies will be the last thing to go… and for that reason a brilliantly hilarious performance like Gosling’s will not be rewarded.” She also makes the point that “the optics of giving a man an award for what is so pointedly a feminist film are a bit off”.
Certainly though, with Ken, Gosling has cemented himself as one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors. Oscar or no Oscar, he can be assured that, to paraphrase the slogan on his pastel-coloured fleece top in Barbie; he’s more than Ken-ough.