Despite their tandem hype, that should go without saying Barbie And Oppenheimer are very different films, both tonally and thematically. But the two films, from Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, share a common scene. In Oppenheimer, a group of nearly identical men in suits sit in a room to determine which Japanese city will be destroyed by the atomic bomb. The film’s suggestion is that the fate of the world rests in the hands of men obsessed with their own power. In Barbie, another group of nearly identical men in suits sit in a room, this time at the top of the Mattel Tower, discussing how to control female consumers. They are similarly obsessed with their own power, except Barbie is too optimistic a movie to let them use it to destroy anything.
BARBIE ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
And what a hopeful film it is. Barbie, written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, is like a warm, radiant ray of sunshine after months of rain. It’s infectiously delightful, even if you’re someone who usually steers clear of chipper, rose-hued movies. Somehow Gerwig has struck a balance between unhinged whimsy, deep humanity and comedic bliss. It’s funny, it’ll make you cry, and it almost feels like a riot. In fact, it’s so meta and subversive that you wonder: How did Gerwig get away with this?
We meet Barbie with the help of a wry narrator, voiced by Helen Mirren, who explains that the Barbies and Kens live in Barbie Land. The Barbies can be anything – president, lawyer, author, doctor, astronaut – and so their utopian society is run by the women, celebrating each other for their multiple Nobel Prize wins and having girls’ night every night. Because the dolls are so successful, unfettered by societal barriers, so are little girls in the real world. Or so the Barbies believe. (The Kens, meanwhile, are simply there as companions to the Barbies.) Our protagonist is Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), or as she says, “What do you think of when someone says, ‘Think of a Barbie’.” She is happy, blonde, beautiful and wakes up to a song every morning.
But one night, during a perfectly choreographed party, Barbie finds herself in a sudden existential crisis. The music comes to a screeching halt as she wonders aloud, “Do you ever think about dying?” The next morning things are less than perfect. Her shower is cold, her waffle is burnt, and her wake-up song is. . . foreign. At the beach, where the dolls gather every day, Barbie’s pointy feet inexplicably flatten. The other Barbies panic. Some scream. Something is wrong in Barbieland.
With the help of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) – a doll mutilated and attracted to her owner – Barbie realizes she must venture into the real world. There she finds the person playing with her and solves the gap between the worlds. She’d rather not go, but there’s cellulite on her thigh now and it looks particularly dire. Ken, played by an absolutely hilarious Ryan Gosling who should win an Oscar for this performance, decides to go with her. Of course, Barbie is a fish out
Because the trailer and marketing for Barbie have been careful not to spoil what happens in the real world, it would be a disservice to do so here. But what follows is hilarious chaos and a heartwarming connection. Perfection, Barbie learns, is overrated. It is also disconnected from the truth of human experience. A scene where she sits next to an old woman on a park bench and is dazzled by the woman’s beauty is very poignant. Having the best day every day becomes boring when life has no meaning or end point. She gets help from Gloria (an appropriately cast America Ferrera) and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), as a group of Mattel executives – the aforementioned identically suit-clad men, led by hapless Will Ferrell CEO – chase after her.
Everything about Barbie, from the costumes to the sets to the music to the choreography, feels thoughtful and purposeful. The sets in particular are impressively compelling. Barbie Land is exactly what you imagined as a child, only better. The jokes are also on point. Gosling’s Ken is Beach Ken and that’s his job: Beach. He is not qualified to be a lifeguard, but he can stand on the beach and look good. It’s a running gag that continues to pay off throughout the movie, as do many of the clever lines and thematic ideas. The film is also deeply self-aware, which is why it works so well. It also becomes an unlikely feminist statement.
The cast was put together with the same thought. The fact that the Barbies, including Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Nicola Coughlan, and Emma Mackey, differ in appearance and size is impressive, especially for younger viewers. All of these Barbies, not just Stereotypical Barbie (which Sasha casually calls “White Savior Barbie”), are presented as perfect. They are all coveted by the Kens, who are equally diverse in the hands of Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Scott Evans and Ncuti Gatwa. Oddly enough, in this society where looks matter, it doesn’t matter at all. While the movie is rated PG-13, it’s one that kids of all genders should see — and enjoy.
Gerwig’s ultimate messages about the complexities of being a woman, the problems created by patriarchy, and finding value in the ephemeral nature of existence are powerful, but she delivers them with genuine joy. Barbie is a real feel-good movie. The only thing it tries to destroy is cynicism.
Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.