IN THE DARK REVIEWS
Binging 'Barbenheimer' in theaters will blow you away
July 27, 2023
I devoted the latter half of last Friday to what has been christened the "Barbenheimer" double-feature, screening Christopher Nolan's three-hour "Oppenheimer" that afternoon, before going to dinner for an hour, then taking in Greta Gerwig's two-hour "Barbie" that evening.
Nolan and several "Oppenheimer" actors have praised "Barbenheimer" in the press, touting it as proof of a healthy cinematic marketplace, and indeed, watching those two films back-to-back made me feel like I'd gazed into the collective consciousness of America.
"Oppenheimer" not only chronicles the creation of the atomic bomb by interrogating the conflicted motivations of the brilliant theoretical physicist who spearheaded the project, but it also details how Robert Oppenheimer's pre-war political affiliations were weaponized against him when he sought to warn the world against the nuclear-arms race.
The opening of "Oppenheimer" was overly distracted and divided in its focal points, but Nolan has managed to exercise perhaps the most discipline and self-awareness I've seen from him so far, reining in his tendency to recontextualize his initial depictions through subsequent reveals.
Nolan's relative restraint made his signature reinterpretations all the more effective, not only as he presaged Oppenheimer's emerging regrets about unleashing the power of the atom on humanity, but also as the narrative disclosed the identities of, and the outcomes facing, the key figures behind Oppenheimer's trials.
I anticipate most moviegoers will (and should) appreciate the almost abstractly beautiful visuals of "Oppenheimer," but its command of sound deserves as much attention. It employs cognitive dissonance to alter what would otherwise be the naturally occurring tone of certain memorable moments.
Playing Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy lives up to the role he's gradually built up to over the years as Nolan's personal muse, but Robert Downey Jr. also delivers his best acting performance in the past decade and a half. It sent me searching through the historic record to supplement my sorely lacking education on former Navy Rear Adm. Lewis Strauss.
Nolan uses Murphy and Florence Pugh, both strikingly physically attractive people, to produce two of the most nonexploitative, most genuinely artistically merited uses of nudity I've ever seen on screen. It conveys their own characters' emotional exposure, but also underscores the profound shame felt by Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer's wife.
As always with biopics, what comes across onscreen as the most unrealistic of screenwriters' embellishments - President Truman (hi, Commissioner Gordon) calling Oppenheimer a "crybaby" for his guilt over the bombing of Japan, and Richard Feynman (played by a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Jack Quaid) playing his bongo drums to celebrate the successful test of the A-bomb at Los Alamos - is the most grounded in fact.
Meanwhile, "Barbie" takes its idealized heroine, and her devoted but empty-headed beau, on a trek from their perfectly pink Neverland to the real world, where Barbie discovers to her dismay that her example hasn't empowered generations of girls as much as she'd imagined, while Ken becomes infected with toxic ideas of masculinity that he brings back with him to Barbieland.
In spite of "Barbie" being even more hilarious and daring in its self-satire than I'd expected, it also managed to be unexpectedly moving, in the same exchanges of dialogue during which it was making jokes about real-life Barbie creator Ruth Handler's criminal record of tax evasion.
When Barbie enters the real world, and she sees an elderly woman for the first time, Margot Robbie's reaction is pitch-perfect, smiling through tears that she doesn't fully understand, as she gazes in wonderment at the woman's signs of age and says, "You're so beautiful."
Watching "Barbie" felt like Gerwig's own version of Andy Kaufman's 1979 TV interview of Howdy Doody, the marionette puppet who starred in his own children's show throughout the 1950s.
Of course, everyone laughs at the obvious comedy of a silly plaything being elevated to mythic status, but by the end, I always get choked up by Kaufman fulfilling his lifelong dream of meeting his earliest idol.
Likewise, for all the broad gags and incisive cultural analysis alike that Barbie's slender doll shoulders are saddled with in this film, it all radiates out of the clearly real love that Gerwig has kept in her heart for the pretty plastic lady who inspired her.
From the legions of Barbies and Kens who inhabit Barbieland, each of whom occupies their own niche, to the quirky folks who live in this film's just-as-absurd "real world," every actor who appears onscreen in "Barbie" performs entirely in capital letters, without any hint of shame or restraint (even Helen Mirren's sardonic voiceover contributions underscore the narrative's deliberate ridiculousness).
The energy of the crowd with whom I watched "Barbie" was no less amazing, as it matched the heightened enthusiasm and pure joy of the "Star Wars" fans who turned out for the very first screenings of "The Phantom Menace" and "The Force Awakens" - right down to how many didn't just dress, but donned costumes for the occasion - only without the subsequent disappointment.
The plural of "anecdote" is not "data," but if a majority of moviegoing audiences respond with the same levels of howling laughter and multiple rounds of spontaneous applause that my theater offered to "Barbie," it's going to clear "Top Gun: Maverick" numbers at the box office.
Next week, the "In the Dark" column returns to its series of reviews of Shelton's remaining free-admission movies in the park, which start around 8:45 p.m. on Fridays in Kneeland Park.
The remaining films are:
■ Friday: "Shrek" from 2001, starring Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy.
■ Aug. 4: "The Mighty Ducks" from 1992, starring Emilio Estevez and Joss Ackland.
■ Aug. 11: "Space Jam" from 1996, starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny.
■ Aug. 25: "Back to the Future" from 1985, starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.