BARBENHEIMER Rules: Conflating BARBIE and OPPENHEIMER – Pam Grady Comments

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Warning: Spoilers ahead.

You have probably seen the memes, by now, the ones that conflate Barbie and Oppenheimer. It is kind of an irresistible mashup: Two highly hyped films going head-to-head on the same opening weekend. And both films being so different: Greta Gerwig’s ode to Mattel’s fashion-forward doll is a feminist comedy with musical overtones. Christopher Nolan’s epic drama limning the life and tribulations of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer is serious cinema, the first big prestige picture of 2023, a film heavily touted for Oscar consideration before anyone had even seen the film.

What is weird is that there are places where the two films intersect, making Barbenheimer less ridiculous than the memes suggest: Both Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and Barbie (Margot Robbie) are midcentury icons, Oppenheimer as the father of the atomic bomb that forever changed the way humans live in the world, and Barbie as the doll that broke the mold, freeing little girls from the tyranny of baby dolls and forever changing the way children play with dolls.

Barbie and Oppenheimer both take a “cast of thousands” approach to filling roles with familiar names showing up in even minor parts. Among the Barbies and Kens in the former are Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Alexandra Shipp, Simu Liu, John Cena, and Kingsley Ben-Adir. Oppenheimer boasts Tony winner Greg Jbara and White Collar’s Tim DeKay as US senators, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Benny Safdie as Oppenheimer’s colleague Edward Teller, and Rami Malek as rival scientist David Hill, and so many more in a parade of famous faces.

Barbie breaks Ken’s (Ryan Gosling) heart when she informs the besotted boy that she will never see him as more than a friend. Oppenheimer is similarly self-contained. Sure, he is married to Kitty (Emily Blunt), whose alcoholism may or may not be a product of her marriage, but he’s a serial philanderer whose affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) reveals a callousness that proves costly.

Barbie and Oppenheimer suffer betrayals at the hands of people they ought to be able to trust. Ken foments a coup in Barbieland. Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who was a colleague of Oppenheimer’s at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, ought to be above shenanigans but he is the man who sets in motion the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

The Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell) and his minions chase Barbie, determined to take her into their custody. Oppenheimer faces an insidious kangaroo court, led by AED special counsel Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), determined to destroy the scientist’s career and reputation.

Both Oppenheimer and Barbie see ghosts. His are horrifying: visions of people killed in an atomic explosion. Her ghost is amiable: Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), Mattel’s co-founder and Barbie’s creator.

All comes out right in the end: The Barbies take back Barbieland from the Ken patriarchy, while years after losing his security clearance, Oppenheimer receives the 1963 Enrico Fermi Award from President Lyndon Johnson.

In terms of production design, costume design, and cinematography, both films represent dream assignments, gloriously executed.

Finally, despite the gaping differences between subject matter, genre, and style, Barbie and Oppenheimer are deeply personal films and triumphs for their makers. This isn’t a competition. Gerwig and Nolan earned their praise. Barbenheimer rules.

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at Reel.com where she was an editor and staff critic. She is currently President of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle.