Oppie's everything, she's just Barbie: Breaking down the lows and lows of Greta Gerwig's blockbuster disappointment

BySuchin Mehrotra
Jul 26, 2023 06:12 AM IST

Barbenhiemer is more a triumphant moment for the movies rather than two great standalone storytelling achievements.

It feels odd to be on the other side of it. After all the hype, anticipation and glorious meme-age, Barbenheimer - the greatest cinematic clash since 2007’s Om Shanti Om and Saawariya #NeverForget - has been experienced, tolerated and relished. Thoughts have been thunk, feelings have been felt, an outrageous amount of pink has been worn. (Also Read: Quentin Tarantino spotted buying ticket for Barbie after watching Oppenheimer on opening weekend)

Margot Robbie as Barbie in the Greta Gerwig film.
Margot Robbie as Barbie in the Greta Gerwig film.

It’s quite the mind-melting experience - to witness Barbie’s bizarre, wacky extravagance along with Oppenheimer’s overpowering tragedy and staggering loss of life, within the same 24 hours. By most accounts, both films are successfully storming the box office in their own right. But in terms of storytelling impact - what came out on top? Which proved more memorable? Who was the Ken of the weekend? (WeeKend?)

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Do they work as a scrumptious double bill? Mostly, yes. But, as delightfully different as they are, the fact remains that one of them is substantial and meaningful and centered on an impossibly attractive actor, and the other… is Barbie. One is populated by a wide cast of unlikely familiar faces showing up to have the time of their lives, and the other… is Barbie. One is a biting look at society and the state of the human race and the other…. is Barbie (I can do this all day).

Warning: Spoilers ahead for both movies.

If it isn’t abundantly clear as yet, despite some winning moments (Depression Barbie, Helen Mirren’s voiceover breaking the fourth wall, Ryan Gosling’s Ken), well-intentioned as it is, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie didn’t entirely work for me. And yes, the joke of “opinionated male critic bashes Barbie” writes itself. The irony isn’t lost on me. But if you’re willing to go a step beyond the surface-level optics to have a deeper discussion, then kindly indulge me.

Let’s start with the shoddy, inconsistent worldbuilding. The story starts us off in Barbieland (Gerwig’s lovably loud, eye-popping pink aesthetic and production designer Sarah Greenwood's gorgeously tacky sets are among the best things about the movie). After experiencing strange goings-on with her perfect doll-like physiology and weird thoughts about death, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) must venture to the real world to find the sad girl who’s playing with her and inducing an existential crisis. Accompanied by Ken (a movie-stealing Ryan Gosling), she leaves Barbieland and travels to the real world where they’re shocked to learn that it’s fuelled by patriarchy and is nothing like what they imagined. While she processes the pain of reality, Ken gets swept away in finally being seen as important and brings the patriarchy (along with multiple books about horses) back with him to Barbieland, thereby corrupting it.

Let’s look at how these two worlds interact because I couldn’t for the life of me understand the rules. Stereotypical Barbie is affected because she’s being played with by a sad woman, Gloria (America Ferrera). I take it this has never happened before, but okay, cool. But also, whatever happens in Barbieland - like Ken’s patriarchy takeover - seems to somehow affect sales of actual Barbie dolls in the real world (?). Speaking of that real world, when it’s convenient, the movie’s version of reality seems to walk and talk like ours. It seems “normal” and rational. That is until we first enter the Mattel Headquarters where, tonally, it feels like we’ve stepped into a heightened, wacky world of cartoons and silliness. This inconsistent tone and writing that hinge on convenience is on full display in one of the film’s laziest scenes, in which Barbie first meets Gloria’s daughter Sasha at her school. When Barbie introduces herself as the real-life Barbie, Sasha (understandably) thinks she’s a deranged lunatic but still goes on to lecture her about how much Barbie dolls have done to hurt the representation of women.

Granted, fantasy movies hinge on suspension of disbelief (even when the worldbuilding is so erratic). Even if you were to make your peace with all of the above, let’s look at the essence of Gerwig’s take on Barbie - its “biting” satire and social commentary which seems to equate to feminism for dummies and a general refusal to leave anything unsaid. The first stretch of the movie introduces Barbieland as a glossy utopia run by women while the film keeps (rightfully) poking fun at Barbie as a symbol of empowerment and how synthetic and simplified Mattel’s approach to womanhood is (I was with it thus far). It even makes it clear that Barbieland is an all-male boardroom’s definition of what female agency is. But when Barbie returns to Barbieland to find the Kens running the show and just generally being pathetic, are we to feel bad? Is the film telling us that the previous status quo - a female utopia defined by the men of Mattel - was the ideal?

Or take Gloria’s Kartik-Aaryan-In-Pyaar-Ka-Punchnama-style monologue about the exhausting expectations women face. It’s a solid standalone sequence (clearly designed for Instagram virality). But it comes out of the blue and doesn't feel earnt. Crowd-pleasing takes precedence over context.

After a point, I couldn’t tell how much of the movie is ironic and how much was sincere.

Forget being in on the joke I couldn't even tell where the joke stopped as Barbie seems to get lost in its own satire. “If you love Barbie or you hate her,” the trailer promises, “this movie is for you.” The result is a movie that’s aggressively self-aware, often to the point of annoyance. At times clever, at times silly fun, rarely both and consistently lost between the two. While I applaud the film’s specificity - blurry, conventional blockbuster it certainly is not - it’s being claimed that it’s brave of Mattel to back a movie that makes fun of the corporation and its own greed. Is it though? Is the movie not a wildly successful #MakeBarbieCoolAndRelevantAgain campaign that will no doubt lead to massive toy sales?

Taking a step back, where Barbie wins is everything around the film more than the film itself. The glorious marketing, letting a distinctive filmmaker play with existing IP, that a female filmmaker has what appears to be one of the biggest hits of the year on her hands. But in terms of everything that happens when that screen flickers to life, of the two, it’s Oppenheimer that’s the enduring cinematic experience.

Christopher Nolan’s biopic about the father of the nuclear bomb may not have inspired us to colour coordinate and dress up en masse, but it's certainly a movie that refuses to leave you. Nolan’s most dizzyingly challenging work yet takes us inside the mind of the man who changed the course of human history, and his complicated relationship with his own legacy. Despite drowning us in detail and not being the easiest thing to follow, as Nolan’s least accessible and bravest movie to date, his ability to challenge his audience, but more so prove that audiences want to be challenged is remarkable. Aside from the thunderous craft, rich artistry, and command over our collective heart rates, to examine the deeply unnerving intersection between science and politics, Nolan crafts a piece of storytelling that may not serve as spectacle, but it certainly is epic.

For more thoughts on Oppenheimer, read our review here.

Barbenhiemer, then, is more a triumphant moment for the movies rather than two great standalone storytelling achievements. Two singular filmmaking voices, two vastly different projects that, together, have pushed us to leave our Mojo Dojo Casa Houses and return to the movies. Even if one is a staggering, haunting piece of cinema and the other is merely flashy and fuzzy and, well, just Ken.

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