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Guestwords: Barbenheimer Redux

Wed, 01/17/2024 - 16:45

They are the oddest couple in movie history. The yin and yang of double features. One is a comedy about a Blond Bombshell, the other a tragedy about the A-Bomb. One is a sensual, technicolor, song-and-dance satire about rebirth, and the other as gray and grim as a killer fog, a humorless wartime drama about mass death. In the summer of 2023, the two merged into the weirdest portmanteau in cinematic marketing: Barbenheimer.

If Barbenheimer signaled the end of the global pandemic, the two are now uncoupled and competing for Golden Globes and SAG Awards and Oscars. Regardless of the winner, history will long note that Barbenheimer invited crowds to gather indoors once again. It had been years since this movie fan had ventured into a theater, so sitting in the dark with a bag of salty popcorn doused with artificial butter was such a treat that I polished off the whole bag (and a box of Milk Duds) during the protracted previews before the opening credits of “Oppenheimer.” It was all delicious. Until the movie began. Oy.

I knew just enough about Oppenheimer to anticipate a scene from his privileged childhood on the Upper West Side or his running academic circles around Fieldston schoolmates or his obsessive collecting of rocks in Central Park. But no. Not a word about his early days. He arrived on the screen fully developed. A man without a childhood. A psyche without a backstory. As Winston Churchill, another World War II hero, once observed: “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

No wonder Oppenheimer’s fate seems to have blindsided writer/director Christopher Nolan and he needed a third hour tacked onto his movie just to ponder the postwar fall of his forsaken hero. Oy, poor Oppie. Oy, poor audience. 

Call me old-fashioned, call me a mother-lovin’ Freudian, but you ignore the formative years of the Father of the A-Bomb, the Destroyer of Worlds, at your own extreme peril. When dramatizing Oppenheimer’s famous brain and his decision-making process — his fateful choices in both love and war — you ought not pretend his first two decades didn’t matter, didn’t mold him, didn’t lay the road map for his future. And ours.

The author Walter Isaacson says the heart of any biography of a man starts with his relationship with his father. In his research of Elon Musk and Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, all four sons either desperately sought paternal approval or tried to escape that desperate need. “Oppenheimer” ignores both parents equally: his artistic mother who filled their apartment with Picassos and Miros, and his immigrant industrialist father, Julius. In the Jewish tradition, sons are not named for living relatives, but the J. stands for Julius, which indicates an unconventional father-son dynamic from the start.

In the few scenes with his younger brother, neither Oppenheimer mentions Mommy or Daddy or Passover dinner. So the onus is on the viewer to research J. Robert Oppenheimer’s juvenescence before and/or after one sees the movie.

(In contrast, some bio-docs of 2023, about David Beckham, Michael J. Fox, Anselm Kiefer, Little Richard, and John le Carré, all spend lavish and rewarding time exploring their upbringing, and we are the wiser for it.)

“Barbie” didn’t bury Barbie’s childhood because Barbie never had a childhood, never went through infancy or puberty. She was born fully formed at 39-18-33 inches. For those interested in such details, Margot Robbie’s measurements are 34-24-35. And they are shown off to great effect throughout a movie that pretends to downplay the curves of a buxom blonde and apologize for the insecurities they triggered in millions of little girls with lesser physiques or greater intellects or more modest wardrobes. (Not to mention the wild fantasies she stirred up in a million little boys, and one adult scrivener. Barbie was born to titillate and twist your childhood, not hers.)

Act One of “Barbie” is entertaining: Barbie realizes she is neither universally beloved nor immortal. The prospect of death and flat feet disturbs her — albeit in equal measure. It took J. Robert the whole movie to come to similar epiphanies: He too is neither universally beloved nor is his earth immortal. Their respective reactions were worlds apart: Oppie’s conflicts and triumphs led to a gray existence of heartbreak and rejection; Barbie’s human frailties kicked off a series of colorful if pedestrian song-and-dance numbers.

But “Barbie” will not bomb! That was the guiding principle at Mattel from the moment someone got the first whiff of Barbie’s commercial mortality (diminishing sales): Lightbulb! In the Barbie Movie, Barbie Doll will get depressed about death so that Barbie Products will have life everlasting. And residuals in perpetuity!

Sales of Barbie dolls have increased 14 percent since the release of the movie. Sales of fedoras are not tracked as well. The box office for “Barbie” stands at $1.4 billion. The haul for “Oppenheimer” is only $952 million. Aphrodite defeats Shiva! Move over Marvel. Make room for a Barbie-verse with infinite sequels. Maybe the next auteur will launch Barbie into a time-travel dimension. Greta Gerwig did not.

Gerwig dropped Barbie into a campy plastic fantastic Los Angeles, not Los Alamos, New Mexico. Rather than a rude awakening at the Manhattan Project, Barbie has a gushy awokening at Muscle Beach. Had she sashayed around the black-and-white compound in her pink bike shorts and spank-me stilettos, she might have wrecked some interesting havoc among the scientists and military men creating horrific havoc on the world. How explosive the spark if pinky Barbie had run into pinko Oppie?

Alas, Mattel and Greta Gerwig had other plans for their heroine and her sisterhood. If the women of “Oppenheimer” are mainly hysterical, sycophantic, or suicidal, the women of “Barbie” are lively, diverse, outspoken, and quick to (mis)appropriate speeches from Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, passing them off as nouvelle agitprop. They rail against the evils of patriarchy and capitalism as they keep one eye on Ken and the other on the cash register. The producers make no bones about being motivated by the almighty, genderless buck.

Girls hate Barbie? So do we! Girls think Ken is a nutless numbskull? So do we! Girls want to embrace their flat feet and flat chests and curly hair? We do too! Because Woke Barbie will make more money than the old, original bubble-breasted, bubble-headed Barbie.

And what about Ken, you ask? What does “Barbie” finally say about her leading man and his kindred minions? Ken can offer no satisfaction to any woman because Ken lacks the necessary equipment, both upstairs and downstairs. And Ken is lucky. Oppenheimer had both in spades, and look at all the trouble he got into.

One wonders if Barbenheimer’s clash of genres doesn’t inadvertently reinforce the antifeminist notion that girls just wanna have fun and boys just wanna blow up things — that women are more concerned with feelings about heels-on-their-shoes and heels-in-the-dating-space while men are just miserable blokes who will inevitably destroy things no matter how noble their motives. Men just can’t help themselves. And women are always trying to help themselves.

In the end, “Barbie” reaches a climax when she visits a doctor for the first time. No, not a psychotherapist, but a gynecologist. How did Barbie grow a vagina in the closing minutes of her movie? Don’t ask. The message is clear: Barbie is a real woman now, not an object to be bought and sold and stripped and fondled and manipulated and exploited and misunderstood. Meanwhile, the other half of Barbenheimer ends when an actual flesh-and-blood hero is betrayed by friends and colleagues and tossed into a black hole of history, alone and disillusioned, a shell of a man, stripped of security clearance, confidence, and honor.

“Barbie” is a psychedelic potpourri, as if the creators were high on mushrooms. “Oppenheimer” is a sober, somber story about the creator of the mushroom cloud. And the winner is . . .

In my hand, I hold the envelope . . . (rustle, rustle) . . . and the Oscar goes to . . . no surprise . . . the only real question is what will the winner do with this smooth, 13-inch, neutered statuette that looks so much like Ken?

Bruce Buschel is a writer who lives in Bridgehampton. The Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday.


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