Ryan Gosling is nothing if not consistent. A two-time Oscar nominee, he’s credibly played everything from young idealist to sensitive loner to enigmatic badass to quirky weirdo. But he’s never delivered anything like his performance in Barbie, which is arguably his best work yet. As Ken, Gosling gives real depth to a character who easily could have been a goofy sidekick. What’s most striking about his performance as Ken, though, is that he gets to be funny. Not quirky or rom-com funny, but really funny.
The 2011 film Crazy, Stupid, Love, starring Gosling as a handsome ladies’ man who attempts to teach his womanizing ways to his newly divorced, middle-aged friend (Steve Carell), was the first film where we really got to see the actor play with comedy. Though it’s a gamely performance, many of the movie’s jokes aren’t by him, but about him; the film frequently uses Gosling’s good looks as a punch line. (“Seriously? It’s like you’re photoshopped!” Emma Stone’s character exclaims when he takes off his shirt.) He got a little more to do in 2016’s The Nice Guys, starring as an inept, down-on-his-luck private detective who teams up with an equally inept enforcer (Russell Crowe). Here, Gosling shows off a natural ability at physical comedy and a gift for slapstick, a step beyond his work in Remember the Titans, Lars and the Real Girl, and even Saturday Night Live—where, again, Gosling has been funny, but mostly because he’s delivered deadpan riffs on his more serious work.
Outside of that handful of funny performances, Gosling has gravitated toward more serious work, like his intense performances in 2010’s Blue Valentine, 2011’s Drive, and 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines. He’s incredible at restraint, often leaving us wondering what his characters are really thinking, as in 2018’s First Man. He also plays brilliant-guy-in-a-suit well, like in The Ides of March and The Big Short. Gosling’s more serious fare has landed him two Oscar nods so far: in 2007 for Half Nelson and in 2017 for La La Land. Other than the latter, Gosling has steered clear of pure romance with the exception of The Notebook, and even then he was able to combine his charm with a dash of subversiveness to make the role much more than it must have been on the page.
That’s the thing about Gosling. He’s got the looks of a standard handsome movie star, but he comes into every role (and most press interviews) with an offbeat smirk hovering just below the surface. Watching him, you get the sense that there’s a lot going unsaid—an inner dialogue that’s a little more fun than what he’s willing to share with the world.
And that’s what makes his performance in Barbie work so well. Gosling is not only funny in the role—throughout the movie, it looks like he’s actually having fun. Sure, Gosling can do restraint. But why did it take this long to see him really let loose?
Gosling’s Ken is pretty simple at first: a lovestruck doll who would do anything for Barbie’s attention and affection. But in the second half of Barbie, Gosling is really unleashed. His character travels to the real world, where he discovers that actual men have a level of power he didn’t know was possible. Ken then returns to Barbie Land to share the glories of the patriarchy with his fellow Kens.
Finally Gosling launches into “I’m Just Ken”—a musical number in which he laments his “life of blond fragility,” his whole identity wrapped up in playing second fiddle to Barbie. A sneak peek of this unique power ballad immediately went viral ahead of the film’s release, but the full number in Barbie is even better—mostly due to Gosling, who performs the hell out of it while still having fun with it. (A quick eyebrow raise or flick of his blond hair speaks volumes.) We knew that Gosling, who starred in the ’90s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club (and La La Land), had musical chops, but it’s his earnest, just-winky-enough delivery that makes the sequence really, well, sing.
It says a lot that Gosling steals every scene in a very busy, fully saturated movie stuffed with famous faces. In part, it’s because he can pull off both shirtless scenes and Ken’s white fur coat covering a leather jacket like no one else. But it’s also about how he balances Ken’s ridiculous nature with pathos, making us feel some sympathy for a character who basically becomes a villain in the film’s second half.