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Go see 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' in theaters — doubleheader or not is your call

It's not every day that an exuberant comedy about a Mattel doll goes head-to-head with a brooding drama about the father of the atomic bomb, but both <em>Barbie</em> and<em> Oppenheimer</em> deliver. Above, Margot Robbie as Barbie and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Jaap Buitendijk, Warner Bros. / Melinda Sue Gordon, Universal Pictures
It's not every day that an exuberant comedy about a Mattel doll goes head-to-head with a brooding drama about the father of the atomic bomb, but both Barbie and Oppenheimer deliver. Above, Margot Robbie as Barbie and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Like a lot of people, I chuckled at the "Barbenheimer" memes that have flooded the internet in recent weeks. Even though counterprogramming is hardly a new thing, it's not every day that an exuberant comedy about a Mattel doll come to life goes head-to-head with a brooding drama about the father of the atomic bomb.

Naturally, there was a lot of sexist speculation that men would prefer to see Oppenheimer while women would be the dominant audience for Barbie. But that's the kind of gender stereotype the Barbie movie itself seeks to turn on its head.

The director Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Noah Baumbach, begins her story in Barbie Land, a pink-tastic paradise that's home to countless walking, talking, life-sized Barbie dolls. They're a diverse group in terms of race and profession: Issa Rae plays President Barbie, Hari Nef plays Doctor Barbie and Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as our heroine, Stereotypical Barbie.

They all just call each other "Barbie," though, just as almost every man here answers to "Ken," including the one played by Robbie's hilariously self-mocking co-star, Ryan Gosling. The Barbies run Barbie Land and the Kens vie for their love and attention.

The plot kicks in when Barbie starts feeling not quite herself, and strange thoughts of death intrude on her upbeat day-to-day. She winds up on a mysterious journey to the real world, with Ken stowing away in the backseat of her pink Corvette.

Arriving in LA, Barbie befriends a Mattel employee, played by a winning America Ferrera, and discovers that Barbie dolls are far from unanimously beloved in the real world. She also learns that unlike in Barbie Land, women here have a much harder time getting the rights and respect they deserve. This comes as a particular revelation to Ken, who becomes a poster boy for the patriarchy overnight, in one of the story's slyer twists.

Gerwig brought a terrific energy to her earlier movies, like Lady Bird, and here she keeps the comedy and the action moving at a speedy clip. Between all the chase scenes and pratfalls, dance numbers and beachfront serenades, the movie tries to have an honest debate about whether Barbie has, in the words of one angry real-world teenager, "set the feminist movement back years."

Celebrating and critiquing a corporate brand is a tricky needle to thread, and I'm not sure Barbie, in the end, pulls it off. Even so, Robbie's captivating and sincere performance wins you over: She's the center of gravity at the heart of this movie's merry comic tornado.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer
/ Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer

Beyond their shared release date, Barbie and Oppenheimer both have a level of conceptual ambition we don't always see in Hollywood movies. In Oppenheimer, which runs a taut and fast-moving three hours, the director Christopher Nolan has made a brilliantly unorthodox portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who oversaw the Manhattan Project that led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

As usual, Nolan doesn't make things easy, shuttling between time frames and perspectives, shooting in color and black-and-white, and immersing us in a stew of names and government acronyms, plus much talk of quantum physics. But the movie is extraordinarily gripping, and it's remarkable to watch as Oppenheimer, played by a superbly restrained Cillian Murphy, comes into focus.

In adapting Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's Oppenheimer biography, American Prometheus, Nolan comes at his subject from every angle. We get a sense of Oppenheimer's wide-ranging intellect, his Jewish heritage, his left-wing politics, his marriage, his womanizing and his enigmatic charm. His ability to bring so many things and people together will make him uniquely suited to direct something as logistically daunting as the Manhattan Project, even if he's unprepared for the consequences.

Oppenheimer is somehow both an immersive character study and a teeming ensemble piece, with vivid work even in small roles from Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh and many others. Matt Damon is gruffly amusing as Col. Leslie Groves, who hires Oppenheimer for the project, and Emily Blunt is electric as Oppenheimer's fiercely independent-minded wife, Kitty. But the most forceful performance comes from Robert Downey Jr. as former Atomic Energy Commission chair Lewis Strauss, who plays a key role in the 1954 hearings that will strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance and make him a pariah.

After the war, Oppenheimer spoke out against nuclear proliferation, though he notably never expressed regret for the devastation of Hiroshimaand Nagasaki. But the Oppenheimer we see in Nolan's movie is ravaged by guilt and horror at what he's unleashed. He realizes that the threat of global annihilation, far from having been defeated, may have only been postponed.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.