Barbenheimer, the conjunctive phrase describing the anticipation following the simultaneous release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The phrase and attached sentiment has all but dominated mainstream cultural discourse for several weeks as audiences watch the duelling press tours and eagerly await the once-in-a-blue-moon double feature.
For its part, Barbie boasted a whirlwind marketing campaign complete with multiple premieres, iconic looks from its stacked ensemble and a star-studded soundtrack album. Arriving on the heels of the now-established “barbiecore” trend and a wave of hyper-feminine buzz, Barbie presented a haven of bubbly, pastel-coloured euphoria with the capitalist enterprise to back it up as promotions ranged from ice cream to a life-size Barbie Dreamhouse rental in Malibu.
As such the film had high standards, especially so with the prolific Greta Gerwig, Academy Award-nominated writer-director, at its helm. As hinted at by its trailers the film follows Margot Robbie’s titular Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken, on a curious quest from the manicured utopia of Barbieland to the real world as they encounter its intricacies and ponder upon the nature of their respective realities.
Gerwig’s feminist fantasia more than delivers on this premise as it sees its characters reckon with the complexities of being ideas whilst finding their place in their world, a theme the auteur tackles often and profoundly in her films. In the process, Barbie also seeks to examine and acknowledge the impact of ideas and abstractions upon reality, and the often mundane humans who imbue them with a singular, personal meaning.
A stark dichotomy between the pretty idealism of Barbie’s Barbieland and the dejected fallacies of the real world colours the entire film. The film’s cathartic thematic resolution to the same sees an amalgamation and acceptance of both. In the midst of this, the feature’s peculiar existentialism makes for a keenly written undercurrent that, in its quirky satirical manner, sees the film delve into examining the fragile and flawed nature of daily human life. While futile and eternal, the film’s thought on human nature is also shown as real, meaningful and singular, something that makes it all the more precious.
A jarring contrast to the same is the seemingly egalitarian and “perfect” Barbieland that works as a microcosm of mainstream feminist thought and its demands. Barbie is bursting with social commentary as the film finds itself tackling the sardonically depicted patriarchy in its various forms. In doing so the writing crafts a funny yet eerily poignant portrait of the toxic masculinity that runs rife in culture today. Adding layers to the theme, the film sees Gosling’s Ken embark on his arc to learn and find himself beyond his relation to Barbie and his Ken-isms, finding his self-worth in himself, not his masculinity or his basal relationship with Barbie.
Feminism is aptly a key theme as the writing serves as a scathing critique of a myriad of misogynistic practices like the sexualisation and objectification of women, tokenism and performative feminism and sexual politics. In doing so, the film also acknowledges the place and sentiment Barbie embodies in the real world, that of an unattainable, often unhealthy toy role model to women, lacking any depth beyond her conventionally attractive looks created by a capitalist, profit-hungry conglomerate that cares little for its negative effects. Thus continues the film’s intertwined theme of the meaning and impact of abstract ideas on real life.
Written by Greta Gerwig in collaboration with her partner and fellow Academy Award-nominated writer/director Noah Baumbach, the script is dialogue heavy and doesn’t rely on ambiguous or subtle writing, instead featuring intentionally heavy-handed thematic dialogues. The use of satire and the witty nature of dialogue achieves a delicate balance between its more existential and fun elements. The script, while not exceptional yet solid, also does a fine job of planting seeds early on for its later plot points.
The film’s most enjoyable aspect is, without question, its humour that, with its quirks, makes one amazed at its weirdness. The same finds its roots in intelligent satire also making for an effective mask for the film’s more emotional aspects. Coupled with its vibrant pastel and pink hues, the film is a visual treat, especially in its production design imagining Barbieland. The copious amounts of pink is a glory to behold as I stand in agreement with the film’s opening song that emphatically declares, ‘pink goes with everything.’
The film’s over-the-top nature also helps it have a sense of what the director described in an interview with Letterboxd as an ‘authentic artificiality’ that makes the pink and plastic world of Barbie real. Barbie’s visual stylings also serve as an ode to a great many films that the director cites as key influences including a pair of highly regarded films from legendary French auteur Jacques Demy. Demy’s influence is seen clearly in the vibrance and colours of the film’s visuals as is that of other imaginative classics like All That Jazz, The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes. An amalgamation of all these influences add an air of incredible theatricality to the film which helps elevate its viewing experience.
Another moment of thorough enjoyment comes in the form of the various musical numbers that add a great deal of levity and spectacle to the film. Among these is the giant blowout party with all the Barbies, planned choreography and a bespoke song sequence (nothing big as the film cheekily notes), a personal highlight.
Robbie and Gosling lead the staggering ensemble and are spectacular as Barbie and Ken respectively. Robbie perfectly captures the wide-eyed naïveté and cathartic realisations to perfection, nailing the humour only further proving to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile. Gosling takes on perhaps his most oddball role and gives it his all, as the fragile egoed, gullible accessory that is Ken and is by far the funniest most entertaining thing about the film. The ensemble is rounded off with fine to hilarious performances by the likes of Simu Liu, America Ferrera, Hari Nef, and Michael Cera among others.
However as Barbie comes to accept, there are imperfections we must endure, so too are there some flaws with the film. Foremost among these is the third act of the film which, while offering a satisfying narrative conclusion, gets somewhat lost in the intertwined web of its own themes stumbling in offering up a fully cohesive thematic conclusion. The same also holds true for Ken’s arc which, while has a neat conclusion, does stumble considerably along the way despite being endlessly entertaining. Additionally, while Barbie’s strength lies in its simplicity, coming from the filmmaker of the beautiful film that is Lady Bird, I did subconsciously expect Gerwig to weave a more complex and even more layered web.
Additionally, the film’s albeit intentional lack of subtlety also makes it a case of the archaic show don't tell syndrome as its heavy-handed satire comes at the cost of some much-needed groundwork. The film’s style of humour, a hyper-self-aware brand of meta jokes aimed to get an astonished chuckle out of its audience by breaking the fourth wall also does feel a tad overdone in places as its purpose remains unknown. Finally, it also does bear acknowledgement that despite Mattel adding nearly every indie darling to the film from its cast to its writers, the film nonetheless serves as a glorified advertisement for a toy that in spite of its checkered socio-political undertones still carries certain problematic tents with itself.
The film is chock full of well-cast diverse representation on screen from POC actors to LGBTQIA+ castings, a positive seeing as it comes attached with Mattel and Barbie’s long history of little to no diversity in their product range. But this issue of diversity plagues the film’s off-screen production ensemble, as there is little representation behind the camera.
As a film, thus, Barbie is pertinent for our times and feels less like a repackaging of age-old feminist ideals and more like a reminder of the persistence of age-old feminist issues and the nuances they encompass as well as how such ideals are reflected in tangible objects and currents. The film’s reception is certainly a litmus test for the unnerving levels of misogyny, homophobia and hypermasculine rhetoric present in popular culture today.
As evidenced by being victim to attacks and boycotts from conservatives in the United States for being “too woke”, “anti-man” and “anti-family” (whatever that means), Barbie’s reception is another reflection of its cornerstone themes. In India, one could easily see rhetoric regarding Barbie that painted it as a “chick flick” or “just pink” “too girly”, “childish” and even statements like “only gays will watch Barbie” when scrolling through social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram. This is especially in contrast to the release of Nolan’s Oppenheimer, seen as a glorious celebration of the father of the atomic bomb (which it is absolutely not) by a prolific male director by the rather incessant section of his fanbase.
The sheer disregard toward Barbie and its importance however serves only as a blistering indictment of its relevance and quality. Contrary to this reaction, there has also been a wave of support for the film from all corners of the world and millions embraced the pink fervour and hyperfeminine aesthetic of the feature, a small glimmer of genuine positivity for popular discourse, and in general as Gerwig has broken the record for the biggest domestic opening for a female director in history with Barbie.
Despite all this still, Barbie’s inextricably linked companion, Oppenheimer, is a staggering feat in its own right as Nolan bends history and the human psyche to his will. Crafting a portrait of Oppenheimer that is as layered as Nolan hammers home the painstaking details that moulded the man’s psyche. One really feels the weight of the world Oppenheimer carries with himself in Cillian Murphy’s incredible performance as Nolan leaves us with a dyad of perspectives that Oppenheimer could be perceived from. Certainly up there with some of his best other work.
It's exceedingly joyful thus, to see audiences embrace originality in their cinema be it Barbie or Oppenheimer, in a landscape dominated by studio franchises, reboots, sequels and nostalgia. Whichever way things go with both films, what’s certain is that the theatrical experience stays alive and audiences enjoy quality filmmaking irrespective of their preferences of which film they choose to watch.
Such is the tale of Barbie, extremely fun and bizarrely idiosyncratic from the go, the film offers a rare yet much-needed feel-good dramedy that leaves its audience with important messages and a great time at the movies. An ingenious plot gives way to a hilariously heartwarming film the likes of which are sorely needed yet hardly found.
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