March 3, 2024

Film Review: Barbenheimer

5 Stars for Barbie; 4 Stars for Oppenheimer
By Joseph Beyer | Aug. 5, 2023

Unless you’ve been vacationing disconnected from all media, you might already be over the endless #Barbenheimer memes, cos-posts, and “have you seen it yet!?” hoopla. But I sincerely hope not.

That’s because taken together or separately, the new films Barbie and Oppenheimer could not reveal more about the state of contemporary storytelling and the still powerful impact Hollywood can have when it wants to…and when it allows creatives to control the sandbox.

One film is a bold and fearless fever dream for a new wave of feminism, led by an indie-centric director known for her honest portrayals of women onscreen. The other is a high stakes political drama about the most violent weapon ever unleashed, led by a formerly indie-centric director known for his brooding male muses.

In the hands of director and co-writer Greta Gerwig, the impossible happens in Barbie when a plastic icon not only becomes fully humanized but teaches us something about our own humanity at the same time.

At the helm of a 70mm epic, the plausible happens when director Christopher Nolan reshapes American history in Oppenheimer, adding another layer of self-reflection to a complicated country still grappling with past atrocities and moral leadership.

Each is an accomplished film and storyworld all to itself. Without any spoilers, I’ll share briefly that Barbie is a fairy tale with a punk ethos that is stunning and entertaining from beginning to end. It comes from a respectful director who managed to do it all in 1 hour and 54 minutes. Wholly original, it breaks too many conventions and stereotypes to count.

Oppenheimer is a slow-simmering morality play where not much changes between good and evil for (a sometimes agonizing) 3 hours. Familiar and confident, it’s led by a formula of gripping but occasionally stereotypical performances and feels like a noble time capsule of ideas and reckonings, staying safely within the expectations of the genre.

I have my favorite.

Mattel and Warner Bros. lavished Gerwig with a $145M budget for Barbie, which grossed almost double that in just the first week. Oppenheimer is the benefactor of the Barbie-Bump and well on the way to becoming profitable even after a $100M budget for a period biography. Box office records have been broken! Audiences are flocking to the theaters again!

To be sure, both big-budget films also star big-budget talents like Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Barbie or Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey, Jr. in Oppenheimer to name just a sparse few from their impressive ensembles. And no doubt many of them will be walking red carpets this fall as both films are destined to be darlings of the upcoming awards season.

The #Barbenheimer phenomenon that started as a joke may be rewarding studios with one of their best summers ever, even as the writers and actors starring in them are embroiled in a bitter labor dispute with no end in sight. We live in interesting times.

Should you complete “the cycle” and watch both, as I did over the weekend, to stay culturally relevant? It’s up to you. But you would be hard pressed to find more honest conversations about American identity than the ones happening in lobbies, bars, and car rides home because of these films.

To a critic often sitting alone in a theater, these new sights of long lines, packed houses in pink, and people leaving satisfied in surprise and delight are beyond promising. Perhaps it will remind us of the power of darkened rooms to light up our connections, and how fun that experience is when we share it with others.

Photo by MovieMaker Magazine

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