It was the bang heard around the world of summer movies: two of the most anticipated big screen offerings of the season Greta Gerwig’s BARBIE and Chris Nolan’s OPPENHEIMER collided! Warner Bros and Universal Studios each scheduled release dates and critics screenings for their films on the same date and time! The animosity goes deeper than scheduling; Nolan left his longstanding studio Warner Bros after a dustup over his last film TENET’s release on the small screen during the pandemic. He left and went to Universal to make OPPENHEIMER and no doubt planned to open his film mid July, traditionally understood in the industry as “Nolan’s weekend.” But Universal decided to release BARBIE that day and Barbenheimer was born: the Father of the Atomic Bomb meets Barbie the bombshell doll!

The skirmish has not only garnered more advance publicity for these movies, filling some of the void left by the writers/actors strike preventing the stars from hawking their cinematic wares, but has also resulted in explosive audience interest the likes of which I haven’t seen in years. I got to see BARBIE on Monday and OPPENHEIMER on Tuesday and they officially open Friday 7/21.  Can’t wait to hear what audiences think.  Each deals with the space/time continuum and its metaphysical implications. Both are a blast– but only one is a masterpiece. OPPENHEIMER is truly great. BARBIE tries hard, but falls flat.

OPPENHEIMER: At 3 hours long, writer/director Christopher Nolan has crafted a fascinating, complex script which held me from first frame to last. He has orchestrated a blazing field of talent around a detailed, masterfully edited, multi-faceted plot with a central core: the making of the bomb and its fallout, globally and personally for the genius at the helm: J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Cillian Murphy with his planet-sized blue eyes and eerie, hyper-intensity has never served a character better. He plays J. Robert Oppenheimer who headed the lab in Los Alamos where the nuclear weapon was secretly hatched. It would soon be deployed in Japan to hasten the end of the WWII and “save lives” –and in that irony lies the most explosive truth and its fallout in the form of blood and guilt. There’s a stunning pivotal sequence near the end of the film which conveys the internal horror Oppenheimer felt at the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even as he was being celebrated as a hero. The scene comes in visual and aural shock waves, mirroring the half lives of destruction felt by the bomb’s immediate and eventual victims. It ate away at Oppenheimer who never found a way to absolve himself.

The plot is told in flashback, bracketed by a hearing in which Oppenheimer’s life is re-examined and his patriotism skewered by commie-obsessed bureaucrats who accused Oppenheimer of un-American activities and stripped him of his security clearance. Nolan’s screenplay (based on the biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin) is both clever and profound. There’s an early joke involving the young student Oppenheimer, an apple, and physicist Nils Bohr (Kenneth Branaugh) suggesting the danger of  knowledge, one bite of the apple, and the black holes to follow. The script provides just enough info about physics to glimpse the complexity and the stakes; it also suggests that the paradox of quantum physics which describes all entities as being both waves and particles, also describes the paradoxical nature of the man Nolan and Cillian Murphy deliver here.

Nolan does not attempt to resolve Oppenheimer’s contradictions but leads us through them; the editing is kaleidoscopic, seamlessly unfolding the themes embedded in the material along with the strands of Oppenheimer’s complex inner and outer life. A brilliant, charming, verbally acute, intensely committed theorist, he was also drawn to leftist causes, loved horseback riding through the wild west, could be caustic but also remarkably passive as he found himself  in whirl of professional and political jealousies, sexual and emotional entanglements, fame and disgrace.

Cillian Murphy’s performance with his ethereal features and tall, bony frame suggests a man with his head in the clouds and his feet on the messy ground called upon to span the gap, trying to explain the nuances of the ethical conundrum he finds himself in on the world stage. Murphy’s performance should win him a nomination if not the Oscar for Best Actor.

And he is one shining star among an almost distracting, star-studded field of talent, not a black hole among them. Florence Pugh suddenly appears as Jean Tatlock, nakedly neurotic in a series of erotic, troubling encounters with the womanizing Oppenheimer. Emily Blunt is Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, herself a scientist who hasn’t inhabited a character this high-strung since The Devil Wears Prada; here it’s postpartum depression and mundane housewifery not Meryl Streep which almost undoes her. Robert Downey Jr. as head of the Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss appears creased and gray, rotting from the inside out. Matt Damon could have easily turned his Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, head of The Manhattan Project, into a stiff. Instead, this military man who is as fiercely tactical as Oppenheimer is theoretical finds himself communicating with the scientist on the same wavelength.

The first atom bomb was detonated on July 16 1945, 76 years ago this week. The shock waves roll on.

BARBIE:  The opening scene is SO FUNNY and smart the audience was howling at the monumental appearance (and its cinematic context) of that beautiful doll! I still have mine, and the clothes, especially that black sequined evening gown with the tulle at the bottom, and of course all those high-heeled mules! Barbie was a revelation to little girls who had been playing with their baby dolls in their toy kitchens UNTIL a woman by the name of Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, debuted a gorgeous grown-up doll with a grown up body in 1959, and named after her own daughter Barbara. This doll wasn’t only at home ironing in her high heels, she could be out in the world with a career, like being a nurse, and still wearing those high heels!

The first scene of Greta Gerwig’s lavishly appointed movie gives us the first glimpse of the perfectly ravishing Margot Robbie as BARBIE in that iconic striped bathing suit. She’s not just stunning, but revelatory, and Helen Mirren’s voiceover strikes just the right playfully ironic tone, indicating where Gerwig is headed as she sets her tale in motion. Barbie has a lot on her mind, not just Ken played by the comely and extremely funny Ryan Gosling.

The first few scenes meticulously replicate Barbie’s dazzling dream house, a stunning pink confection loaded with everything from a pool and waterless shower to a working toaster, and a two story slide so Barbie can awaken perfectly coiffed and made up, and slide into her day surrounded by all her loving Barbie friends. These include Issa Rae as “President Barbie” and Dua Lipa as “Mermaid Barbie” because here, Barbies rule, anything is possible, and Ken and the boys understand they only matter because Barbie notices them. Sound familiar ladies?

Not to worry gents. This is no feminist screed, but change is afoot. In fact, one day Barbie’s perfectly and perpetually arched foot goes flat!!  Horrors. Barbie and her friends freak out as they examine this grotesque phenomenon. Also, out of nowhere, Barbie is suddenly thinking about…dying! And when she mentions the “D” word in the middle of a big dance party/production number, the silence is deafening. Our audience was in hysterics. So far so good. Barbie’s about to confront real life, feet on the ground… this is gonna get even better…

…until Greta and co-writer/husband Noah Baumbach turn into Chatty Cathy (also created by Ms. Handler) and kill the momentum by scripting the elaborate details of a metaphysical portal to the real world, how to get there, all the gadgets on the journey and why weird Barbie is weird. Weird Barbie is, of course, Kate McKinnon who is saddled with this exposition and is unfunny. That takes some doing. Later we meet Will Ferrell as the head of Mattel who is not only  unfunny, but  keeps tediously re-appearing. What a waste. Some of the laughs strain beneath the social commentary; at one point Barbie has to choose between high heels or Birkenstocks.  There are some clever observations about the patriarchy which Barbie confronts in the real world which is exactly the inverse of Barbie land. But the air has gone out of the film by then and doesn’t come back except when Gosling’s adorable Ken revives us with a big dance number.

I’d have rather seen BARBIE show us more, explain less, provide fresher, deeper insights, and let Will and Kate improvise. However its point is pretty even-handed: let’s ditch all the “hierarchies,” “matri ” and “patri,” and see what gives. In any case, let’s keep Barbie, whose last line is killer and absolutely warrants a sequel.

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