Maybe the highest praise I can offer Greta Gerwig's Barbie – and despite a few missteps, the writer/director's latest is worthy of massive praise – is that whatever you think the movie is going to be, it isn't going to be that.
I mean, if you've seen the trailers, it'll be that at least a little. You will indeed be immersed in a live-action Barbieland in which the unofficial ruler – a doll-woman who appears to rank just above Issa Rae's president as the most influential non-human in the realm – is the proudly self-proclaimed Stereotypical Barbie played by Margot Robbie. Ryan Gosling is her adoring afterthought Ken, and he's surrounded by multiple Kens, none more personally vexing than the one portrayed by the equally ripped hottie Simu Liu. Thoughts of mortality do indeed enter Stereotypical Barbie's mind, leading to cold showers (sans water), feet no longer engineered to fit high heels, and a visit to the home of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, perfection). While there, our fleshy plastic heroine is given the bad news: Someone in the Real World is obviously playing with Robbie's Barbie to the blond ideal's detriment, and she has to confront that toy owner – in the “real world” of Los Angeles, no less – if she has any chance of her ultra-pink, happy-go-lucky life reverting to normal.
When some of us first heard that indie stalwart Gerwig, whose only two previous features as a solo director were 2017's incandescent Lady Bird and 2019's brilliant re-imagining of Little Women, it was hard to know what to think. Scratch that: It was easy to know what to think. We were appalled. “Why the eff is Greta Gerwig, of all people, selling her soul to Mattel?!” Even those of us who suspected that she and her co-screenwriter partner Noah Baumbach likely had a trick or two up their sleeves couldn't help but be bummed by the idea of Gerwig serving as a vehicle to sell more dolls and doll accessories, and while the previews were amusing as all-get-out, they didn't suggest much in the way of legitimate invention. Amidst the casting perfection of Robbie and Gosling and the production perfection of its scenic design (by Sarah Greenwood) and costumes (by Jacqueline Durran), this Barbie, much as I was looking forward to it, still suggested a moderately high-minded take on 1995's The Brady Bunch Movie, and felt like a significant downturn for Gerwig. And I really like The Brady Bunch Movie.
To those of you similarly bewildered by Gerwig's participation and entertained but not necessarily swayed by the zippy trailers, rest assured: This is in every inch a Greta Gerwig movie. She's certainly venturing beyond her established comfort zone, and my favorite nine-year-old who attended Saturday's screening with me (along with her parents) giggled incessantly at things we weren't prone to expect from Barbie's director: cars comically flipping upside down; a beachfront battle that my adult-male pal correctly presumed was a spoof of Brad Pitt's swords-and-sandals epic Troy; a plastic dog that poops plastic turds. (Blame that one on Mattel.) My young friend, however, seemed unusually fidgety during much of the rest of Barbie. That felt fitting.
On its surface, Gerwig's movie may seem innocuous. But I also left with the sense that, given the thematic weight of its next-to-last sequence and many that land before, this unexpectedly trenchant, deeply feminist film could become a generational touchstone – one that inherently changes in meaning and effect, and one whose jokes become more pointed, if you see the movie at age nine, and then again as a tween, and then as a young adult, and then as a parent, and then as a grandparent. Make no mistake: Gerwig is serving a capitalist interest here, even if she does finagle some giggles at Mattel's expense. (While product placement is expectedly rampant, and sometimes annoyingly so, one of the more hilarious script/sight gags in this PG-13 comedy finds the Mattel logo discreetly placed over Issa Rae's mouth right as she's saying “motherf---er.”) But Gerwig is using capitalism, and with it big-budget Hollywood financing, to make necessary statements about corporate greed without equivalent corporate interest, and deep-rooted patriarchy in the guise of PC-friendly “wokeness.” That she's able to do this while delivering ginormous laughs and making you cry – and delivering full-scale musical numbers besides – constitutes something of a miracle.
With Helen Mirren providing narration (and eliciting perhaps the film's biggest laugh with a snarky comment about the casting of star/producer Robbie), the Barbieland sequences are consistently magical, overflowing with so many giddy reference points and objects of deserving satire – among them a number of wisely discontinued Mattel items – that a second viewing feels immediately essential. It's when the narrative shifts to L.A. that some of the fun begins to drain out of the film. Casting Will Ferrell as the incensed CEO of Mattel is one of those ideas that may have looked smart on paper. In practice, though, he's too predictable a comic buffoon, and his squadron of all-male Mattel henchmen aren't granted any individual personality; you register the jokes they're involved in, but awareness doesn't make any of their routines funnier. Gerwig's natural comic instincts also seem to momentarily fail her when Ken, embracing real-world patriarchy, tosses various Barbie outfits out of her Dream House – a bit that seems, for the first and only time in the movie, solely designed to sell accessories, and that momentarily kills the high tragicomedy Robbie and Gosling otherwise pull off.
Good Lord, though, do these stars ever pull it off. Robbie succeeds at the theoretically impossible, crafting a flesh-and-blood plastic figure whose wide-eyed ingenuousness gradually, unmistakably morphs into human consciousness – and she's unfailingly riotous and heart-tugging, to boot. Actors have won Academy Awards for far less than what Robbie gives us here. And Gosling doesn't deserve an Oscar (though he might actually get one) so much as a statue in his monument, delivering a pitch-perfect rendition of every handsome, dumb, fragile straight dude you've ever met who knows the lyrics to every Matchbox Twenty song ever written and would happily spend four hours, as he does here, playing guitar at you.
Because Barbie just opened and deserves to be experienced with the same sort of delighted surprise I felt, I'm avoiding going into detail on a number of potential Spoilers (and who woulda thunk a Barbie flick would ever have Spoilers?): the role played by the sublimely warm and precise America Ferrara; the soundtrack and film-clip callbacks ranging from the Indigo Girls to Grease to Colin Firth in 1995's BBC Pride & Prejudice; the '90s-choreo dance numbers; Rhea Perlman as Barbie inventor Ruth Handler; Michael Cera as the discontinued Allan. (A doll that, with Cera's exact countenance, Mattel should re-develop immediately.) Suffice it to say that, at Barbie, I laughed harder than I expected, I cried more than I wanted to, and I cannot wait to see this weird, wonderful, surreptitiously moving movie again. One time just wasn't Kenough.
Walking into Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan's three-hour biographical dramatic thriller on the primary creator of the atomic bomb, we know going in that the movie's centerpiece is going to be the first test of that weapon of mass destruction, followed, most likely, by the dropping of said bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That initial test, with all of its knuckle-whitening intensity, is indeed accounted for, and ultimately leads to widespread cheers and a Time magazine cover. The bombings on Japan, however, are only experienced through a static-filled radio address. And when J. Robert Oppenheimer himself is finally allowed to see the demolition and fatalities his invention led to, via newsreel footage in a well-populated auditorium, Nolan's camera stays resolutely fixed on Oppenheimer's down-turned face as other witnesses react with aghast horror and gasps.
This dichotomy, I think, is key to understanding writer/director Nolan's modus operadi in this arresting and sobering film. He gives us the sights and sounds that we, as fans of Big Events on-screen and -off, were hugely looking forward to, then asks whether we should ever have been looking forward to them in the first place.
Nolan being Nolan, Oppenheimer is hardly your standard bio-pic, and with the addition of random flashbacks and, for wont of a better term, “dream sequences,” its narrative is basically composed of three separate time-line realities. One is a mostly prototypical biography on its title character (played by Cillian Murphy with traditional intensity but more smiles than I anticipated), following him from his collegiate years to his eventual role as “father of the atom bomb.” Another concerns Oppenheimer's interrogation in a cramped government office as a series of antagonistic suits threaten to take away his national-security clearance. The third, shot largely in black-and-white by exemplary cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, involves the cabinet-post confirmation hearings of Lewis Strauss (a thunderously fine Robert Downey Jr.), whom, we learn, holds an intense grudge against Oppenheimer. For more than an hour of Nolan's movie, you may be wondering how these disparate storylines are possibly going to coalesce over the span of 180 minutes. Fear not. This is the guy who made Memento happen in under two hours. As evidenced by the creation of the A-bomb, miracles are indeed possible.
For my money, and it feels a little goofy to type this, the least-successful portion of Nolan's film is everything that transpires until Matt Damon – who's excellent here – shows up about a half-hour into the proceedings. Prior to the actor's arrival as Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who effectively handed control of the Los Alamos-based Manhattan Project to Oppenheimer, the excessive exposition was speedily handled, but maybe too speedily for those of us not well-versed in theoretical physics. It was also frustrating, if in a compelling way, to glean how Nolan's chronological fast-forwards were going to fit into the design as a whole, and the movie wasn't a half-hour old before I correctly surmised that it wouldn't leave much room for its women. (Florence Pugh, whose scenes could've been cut entirely with no noticeable loss, is stuck playing the lost damaged goods that Marion Cotillard previously played in Inception, and Emily Blunt – despite giving her role as Oppenheimer's alcoholic wife more fierceness than it deserves – is all but wholly sidelined until the film's last 20 minutes.)
Yet after Damon's profoundly humorless Groves enters and offers Oppenheimer (whom the Army man does not like) the morally questionable opportunity of a lifetime, nearly everything about Oppenheimer improves, and dramatically. Perhaps taking a cue from Groves' no-nonsense demeanor, the film appears to take greater pains toward ensuring that the non-theoretical-physicists among us know and, more fundamentally, understand the complexities involved in this potentially life-ending creation, and understand the weight consequently carried by Oppenheimer, whose initial visions of seismic cataclysm now have the chance of proving prophetic. And because Memento et al have trained us to be patient with Nolan's gradual unspooling of information, it also makes sense that the increased intensity of the main narrative would have side effects on its detours. I'm not 100-percent confident about why van Hoytema's palette shifts from black-and-white to color when it does. But I'm reasonably sure it has something to due with (full-color) knowledge being the antithesis of (black-and-white) presumption, and with almost a full hour of movie to go after that A-bomb test, it's not just the screen that shifts between knowledge and presumption – our attitudes about what this new technology means, and certainly Oppenhimer's, do, too.
It would be easy to describe Nolan's latest as three hours of esoteric fun if, despite its intellectual and even tragic leanings, it weren't also fun in so many other ways. Although, in the manner of so many Nolan offerings over the last decade-and-a-half, the sound quality is still strangely muddled (no other English-language director's movies are so keenly needing of subtitles), it's less problematic than of late, and the beautifully quiet – and then really loud – Los Alamos bomb test makes up for a lot of prior offenses. As edited by that chronology ace Jennifer Lame (who performed wonders on Richard Linkalter's Boyhood), the shifts between past and present and future-present are accomplished with magnificent care, and build, in the film's last hour, toward making those cabinet hearings and back-room interrogations just not comprehensible, but dramatically essential.
And good God but the cast in this thing. I felt mild twinges of guilt when it took me longer than I would have wanted to recognize David Krumholtz (heavier now but as marvelous as ever), Jason Clarke, and James Remar. But Nolan's latest also treats us to first-rate work, sometimes for only a scene or two, by Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh (as Niels Bohr), Bennie Safdie, David Dastmalchian, Tom Conti (as Albert Einstein), Rami Malek, Olivia Thirlby, Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich, Tony Goldwyn, Alex Wolff, and an uncredited Gary Oldman, whose cameo as Harry Truman was thrilling even before he ushered Oppenheimer out of the Oval Office and called him a “crybaby.” This is like the guest list in Oliver Stone's JFK. But with apologies to Costner, this is JFK with an astounding central performance, Murphy's blend of hubristic ego and all-consuming guilt a complete, real-world match for the Prometheus icon he both vainly and detrimentally considers himself. As Nolan's deeply thoughtful, humane, exhilarating Oppenheimer reminds us, the man's invention may have ended a war, but it led to the eradication of hundreds of thousand of souls – our protagonist's among them.
Like a number of you, I'm guessing, I caught a double-feature over the weekend. I'm also guessing that unlike a number of you, I didn't indulge in the two-fer of Barbenheimer, but rather Cobenheimer – back-to-back screenings of Oppenheimer and director Samuel Bodin's Cobweb, an insanely under-the-radar Lionsgate release that opened locally opposite Greta Gerwig's plastic-doll extravaganza and Christopher Nolan's A-bomb bio-pic. Not to overstate things, but has any movie ever had worse luck in terms of its release date? And even though Bodin's endeavor kind of deserves its box-office ignominy, shouldn't this modestly involving horror flick have generated more interest – on a different opening weekend – given that its stars are C'mon C'mon's young breakthrough Woody Norman, the eternally underrated Lizzy Caplan, and Antony Starr, everyone's favorite superhero sociopath on The Boys?
For roughly half of its admirably brief 85 minutes, Cobweb is terrific fun, principally because Caplan and Starr aren't doing anything to hide – and, in truth, are encouraging – the notion that they're the World's Worst Parents. In the bedroom of his ramshackle home whose backyard boasts what looks like a pumpkin patch for decaying fruit, Norman's bullied grade-schooler Peter is routinely terrorized by thumping sounds behind the walls, with the noises eventually turning into a voice warning the kid that his parents might not have his best interests at heart. This, it seemed to me, was a completely unnecessary warning, as mom Caplan was already pitched somewhere between murderous rage and a full-scale panic attack, and dad Starr only looked truly happy when he was subtly terrorizing Peter's substitute teacher (Cleopatra Coleman) with a hammer in hand. During the unofficial Act I of Bodin's and screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin's freakout, you sense the film striving for the thematically horrific “my parent wants me dead” richness of The Shining – a feeling made manifest when Bodin blatantly borrows/steals camera moves as one of Peter's folks attacks a door with an ax, and Norman becomes increasingly photographed like bug-eyed, open-mouthed Danny Lloyd in Kubrick's masterpiece.
Need I tell you that, as it turns out, this is absolutely not The Shining? Although the plotting, largely anticipated though it is, does go in a direction I didn't foresee, I think most fellow horror fans will find that direction sadly inferior to most other possible narrative avenues, and once the exact nature of the evil is revealed, Caplan's and Starr's deliciously malevolent performances fail to make any sense. Following too many scenes of badly illuminated peril and predictable bang-and-boom effects, Boden's genre offering might also boast the most underwhelming ending to a fright flick in several years. Yet too much of what precedes it is disappointing, too, and despite a gory, profanity-laden climax that doesn't in any way resemble the more creepily sedate 70-ish minutes that came before, Cobweb – which can lay claim to exactly one good jump scare – feels precisely like the cinematic sacrificial lamb it is. Despite my lukewarm-or-worse reaction to the movie, though, this thing deserved better than to open on Barbenheimer weekend. It really should've been allowed to fail on its own merits.