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Barbenheimer Part 2: Barbie Edition

Posted by August 20th, 2023 No Comments »

Barbie (2023)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and America Ferrera

Oppenheimer (2023)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt and Matt Damon

By Tim Basaraba

Greta Gerwig is an impressive artist. Her coming-of-age debut Lady Bird was among my favorite films of 2017 and I gave her adaption of Little Women an A when I reviewed it in 2019. As an actress, she comes across as sincere and likable no matter how strange the character. Her roles 20th Century Women (2016) and White Noise (2022) come to mind. She’s also great in 2012’s Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach. Obviously, Gerwig has a great respect for cinema as well. Even the trailers for her break-out hit Barbie demonstrated this, with nods to Bob Fosse, Busby Berkeley and Gene Kelly.

Since I’m a big proponent of Optimum Immersion, when I walked into the theatre to see Barbie for the first time, I hoped that the entertaining but unavoidable “Barbenheimer” hype leading up to its release hadn’t ruined my chances to fully enjoy it. It didn’t. Barbie is an excellent film. Funny, clever and well-written with an excellent cast.

Speaking of the cast, what can’t Margot Robbie do? We know that she can carry Damien Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon (2022), as the only character the audience cared about. We know that she out acted co-stars Christian Bale and John David Washington in David O. Russell’s latest, Amsterdam (2022). And we know that she was the best part of three completely different superhero films as unhinged DC superhero Harley Quinn. Charismatic, beautiful and iconic, what better way to showcase her talents than as the title character in the first film personification of the Barbie Doll?

Robbie’s character, “classic Barbie,” as well as the 50 other versions of the classic Mattel toy that appear in the film, are only half of the equation in Gerwig’s film. We also have a star-studded cast of Kens led by Ryan Gosling. Your Optimum Immersion is important to me, so for those who haven’t seen it I will only say this about the plot – if you have seen The Lego Movie (2014), you have a head start on understanding the basic premise of the story. Basically, the “world” of the toys intersects with the real world. 

Unlike the LEGO movie, though, Barbie explains and lampoons a dangerous and long-standing cultural norm – the patriarchy – and demonstrates (both overtly and subtly) how hard it is to exist in a world built for men. Never preachy or ham-fisted, the film’s strong social narrative is dotted with songs, comedy, skits and dance numbers to relieve the tension. 

As a musical, Barbie falls short of my expectations. I’m a big fan of classic musicals and the artifice of old Hollywood. This film didn’t quite satisfy my need for those familiar elements. The musical numbers were short in length and they were too few and far between. Had Gerwig replaced a couple of the long, expository soliloquies with additional musical numbers to help move the story along then this would undoubtedly be my favorite film of 2023 so far. 

Another small gripe is the portrayal of Mattel, the company that markets and sells Barbie dolls, and what seemed like super soft commentary on consumerism. If you can skewer the patriarchy this brilliantly, you should be able to more pointedly skewer the capitalism that comes from it. 

Great films have a great ending, and the ending to Barbie will be talked about for a while, especially in the state I grew up in, Idaho, which currently has a law prohibiting minors from traveling to other states without a parent’s consent for medical consultations or procedures. 

It is great to live in a world where the biggest film of the summer is directed by a woman, and tells a smart story about being a woman. Let’s hope it is a sign of good things to come in regard to gender equality in cinema and the rights of women in the U.S. and across the globe.

If The Lego Movie (Remember that “Everything is Awesome” song?) was an A then so is Barbie.

Read Tim’s Oppenheimer review.

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