Barbie - Photo Warner Bros. Pictures
Barbie – Photo Warner Bros. Pictures

The “Barbenheimer” craze continues as these two diverse, yet remarkable films dominate the box-office.

Much-hyped, candy-colored “Barbie” is not what I expected. I was anticipating a silly, bubble-gum pink caricature of Mattel’s iconic plastic doll. Instead, writer/director Greta Gerwig and producer/actress Margot Robbie have created a satirical comedy-adventure that cleverly exposes our sexist societal shortcomings. 

Back in 2018, ambitious Israeli businessman Ynon Kreiz decided to expand the Mattel franchise into movies, TV shows, stage productions and theme parks, beginning with this surreal, live-action fantasy. 

After meeting Margot Robbie, he decided not only to partner with her production company LuckyChap Entertainment but also to insist that she embody the titular toy. Robbie then suggested that Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird,” “Little Women”) write the script, and Gerwig brought in her husband/ filmmaker Noah Baumbach.

Narrated by Helen Mirren, the $145 million, coming-of-age extravaganza begins with a “2001: A Space Odyssey” parody with little girls bashing their traditional baby dolls before morphing into the pink pristine perfection of Barbieland.

That’s where beautiful, ‘stereotypical Barbie’ (Robbie) awakens in her Malibu Dreamhouse and arises to greet many diverse Barbies, along with lovelorn Ken (wry, scene-stealing Ryan Gosling), assorted ‘beachy’ Kens, Allan (Michael Cera) and Midge (Emerald Fennell).

But then things start to go wrong. Perennially happy Barbie suddenly starts having an identity crisis and – Egad! – thinking about death. After chatting with Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), curiosity leads her to into the patriarchal ‘real world’ of Los Angeles.

That’s where Barbie becomes entangled with Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha’s (Ariana Greenblatt) strained mother/daughter relationship, highlighted by Gloria’s passionate monologue about the expectations and ‘impossibility’ of being a woman.

Fusing idealism with reality, nostalgia with self-realization, the shrewdly subversive script skewers Mattel’s dim-witted CEO (Will Ferrell) while acknowledging Barbie’s inventor, businesswoman Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman). 

According to Handler’s autobiography “Dream Doll,” she envisioned this long-legged, immaculately outfitted figurine that she named after her daughter Barbara. Ken was subsequently named after her son. (There’s a brief scene on a park bench in which Barbie chats with an older woman – the ‘real’ Barbara Handler.)

Years later, Ruth Handler had an unfortunate skirmish with the Securities & Exchange Commission, and her idea became lost a in polarizing controversy about rigid beauty ideals and unrealistic body conformism. 

Meanwhile on-screen, Barbie’s visual values are glorious, thanks to production designer Sarah Greenwood and costumer Jacqueline Durran. And the score features Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, Lizzo and Billie Elish.

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Barbie” is an edgy, existential, empowering 8, playing in theaters.

Oppenheimer - Photo Universal Pictures
Oppenheimer – Photo Universal Pictures

Inventive writer/director Christopher Nolan faced an awesome challenge: shaping Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman’s comprehensive, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography – “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2005) – into “Oppenheimer,” a cohesive, three-hour film.

Admittedly complicated and confusing, its solemn concept melds science with drama, fusion with fission, and a multitude of characters with 20th century history, chronicled by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in IMAX 70-millimeter.

While the non-linear plot involves creating a top-secret coalition of scientists to build an atomic bomb, it also explores dense themes of coercion, Communism, and collective vision.

At its center is soft-spoken theorist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he often conversed with eminent Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) about quantum physics. 

During World War II, Oppenheimer was recruited by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to spearhead the Manhattan Project which sequestered the best physicists in the United States in a sort of intellectual boot camp in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop the weapon that would force Japan to surrender.

His Nobel Prize-winning colleagues included Isidore Rabi (David Krumholtz), Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) and Edward Teller (Benny Safdie). Only weeks after its first test in July, 1945, ‘Trinity’ was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Digressing into Oppenheimer’s personal life, Nolan delves into his dysfunctional sexual relationship with psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a member of the American Communist Party, and his subsequent marriage to troubled Kathleen ‘Kitty’ (Emily Blunt), resilient mother of his children.

Later on, Oppenheimer philosophically opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and advised U.S. politicians to cooperate in an international agreement to put restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons. 

His ambivalence and audacity eventually placed him in direct conflict with duplicitous Adm. Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who stripped him of his security clearance during the politically paranoid McCarthy era.

The supporting cast also includes Jason Clarke, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Matthew Modine, Kenneth Branagh and Gary Oldman. Expect Oscar nominations not only for Christopher Nolan but also for Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr., who deliver the most indelible performances of their respective careers.

On the Granger Gauge, “Oppenheimer” is an intense, exacting, explosive 8, playing in theaters.

Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See all her reviews at www.susangranger.com.