Despite their tandem hype, it should go without saying that Barbie and Oppenheimer are very different movies, 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 suit-clad men sit in a room to determine which Japanese city will be destroyed by the atom bomb. The film’s suggestion is that the fate of the world is in the hands of men obsessed with their own power. In Barbie, another group of nearly identical suit-clad men sit in a room, this time at the top of Mattel Tower, to argue about how to control female consumers. They are similarly obsessed with their own power, except Barbie is too optimistic of a film 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 beam of warm, gleaming sunshine after months of rain. It is infectiously delightful, even if you’re someone who might typically steer clear of chipper, pink-hued flicks. Somehow Gerwig has struck a balance between unhinged whimsy, deep humanity and comedic bliss. It’s funny, it will make you cry and it feels almost like a rebellion. It’s so meta and undercutting, in fact, that you can’t help but 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 led by the women, who celebrate each other for their frequent Nobel Prize wins and have girls’ night every night. Because the dolls are so successful, unhindered by societal barriers, so too are little girls in the Real World. Or so the Barbies believe. (The Kens, meanwhile, are simply there as companions for the Barbies.) Our protagonist is Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), or as she puts “What you think of when someone says, ‘Think of a Barbie.’” She’s happy, blonde, beautiful and wakes up every morning to a song.
One night, though, in the midst of a perfectly-choreographed party, Barbie finds herself in a sudden existential crisis. The music screeches to a halt as she wonders aloud, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” The next morning, things are less perfect. Her shower is cold, her waffle is burned and her wake-up song is . . . odd. At the beach, where the dolls gather each day, Barbie’s pointed feet inexplicably flatten. The other Barbies panic. Some of them scream. Something is amiss in Barbie Land.
With the help of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon)—a doll who has been mutilated and drawn on by her owner—Barbie realizes she needs to venture into the Real World. There, she’ll find the person who is playing with her and fix the rift between the worlds. She’d rather not go, but there’s now cellulite on her thigh and things seem especially 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 of water in Los Angeles, coming face to face with the realization that women don’t quite have it as good as she thought. Ken, on the other hand, becomes eager to learn more about the patriarchy and horses, which he believes are related.
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 ensues is equal parts hilarious mayhem and heart-warming connection. Perfection, Barbie comes to learn, is overrated. It’s also disconnected from the truth of human experience. A scene where she sits on a park bench next to an old woman and becomes dazzled by the woman’s beauty is deeply poignant. Having the best day every day gets boring if life has no meaning or end point. She gets help from Gloria (an aptly-cast America Ferrera) and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), while a group of Mattel executives—the aforementioned identical suit-clad men, led by Will Ferrell’s hapless 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 immersive. Barbie Land is exactly what you imagined as a child, but better. The jokes, too, are on point. Gosling’s Ken is Beach Ken and that’s his job: Beach. He’s 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 film, as do many of the clever lines and thematic ideas. The movie is also deeply self-aware, which is the reason it works so well. It also becomes an unlikely feminist statement.
The cast is put together with similar thought. The fact that the Barbies, who include Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Nicola Coughlan and Emma Mackey, vary in appearance and size, is impactful, especially for younger viewers. All of these Barbies, not just Stereotypical Barbie (who Sasha casually refers to as “White Savior Barbie”), are presented as perfect. They’re all desired by the Kens, who are equally diverse in the hands of Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Scott Evans and Ncuti Gatwa. Oddly, in this society where appearance matters it also doesn’t matter at all. While the film is rated PG-13, it’s one that kids of all genders should see—and that they’ll enjoy.
Gerwig’s ultimate messages about the complexity of being a woman, the problems created by the patriarchy and finding value in the ephemeral nature of existence are powerful, but she delivers them with sincere joy. Barbie is a true feel-good movie. The only thing it seeks to destroy is cynicism.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.