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How I stopped worrying about loving ‘Barbie’ and 'Oppenheimer'

Christopher Nolan and now Greta Gerwig are fostering a new demographic: cults that aggressively celebrate directors, with loud fans who will not brook disagreement

Releasing on the same day, the two films became a portmanteau, like a celebrity couple: Barbenheimer
Releasing on the same day, the two films became a portmanteau, like a celebrity couple: Barbenheimer

It is a feat to take ownership of a colour. Prince owned purple, but then he was Prince. Giving the legend that colour, in exchange for us mortals to bask in his divine alien splendour, was an easy trade. For a movie, a Barbie movie, to co-opt the colour pink is a triumph of marketing that should be taught in business schools. Hell, they even painted a nuclear scientist. Oppenheimer, an epic about the father of the atom bomb, could not be less like Barbie, but, releasing on the same day, the two films became a portmanteau, like a celebrity couple: Barbenheimer. The rosé blockbusters.

Both films are made by directors invoking Stanley Kubrick. Greta Gerwig starts Barbie by riffing on the iconic monolith scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey and inserts a joke about The Shining later, while Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan frequently talks of his love for Kubrick. I daresay the man who directed Dr Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb would not have been impressed either by a biopic that lionises a misguided scientist, or a film intended to sell plastic toys.

Also read: How watching ‘Barbie’ with my teenage daughter helped us both

Not that Gerwig would be out to impress Kubrick. Barbie has a disdain for canonised male authority figures, taking digs at fans of Zack Snyder, as well as those of The Godfather Part II. The film calls out the patriarchy, weaponises the colour pink and feels like a statement—while not really making one. This is a strawberry milkshake of a film, well acted and occasionally funny. Sometimes, as Cyndi Lauper sang, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.

I expected more from Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach, who wrote Frances Ha together. Subversion, radical feminism, cleverness. Barbie objects to being called a fascist, saying, “I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce,” and it’s a fine laugh, except it makes no sense when said by “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie), who is oblivious to the world. Smugly self-aware, Barbie dishes out easily smoothened satire, mocking toy company Mattel—almost like She-Hulk (Disney+ Hotstar) teased Marvel boss Kevin Feige in its series finale—just enough to sell more toys to more demographics.

I remain particularly frustrated that the $150 million film lacks a distinctive visual signature, building on a basic dollhouse aesthetic without truly original flair. Thinking back to Wes Anderson’s pink pastry-shop scenes in The Grand Budapest Hotel (Disney+ Hotstar) or the pink prison sequences in Paddington 2 (Lionsgate Play), Barbie doesn’t do enough to stand out visually. Just as it doesn’t do enough with ideas coming from the Toy Story films (Disney+ Hotstar) and The Lego Movie, films that asked deeper questions. To me, Barbie falls significantly short of being memorable.

Disagree, please. But—considering the number of woman friends insisting I am looking at it wrong—the pink mob is baying for consensus (behaviour, it must be said, that is not dissimilar to admirers of Snyder). One dividing point is a monologue about feminism. A sanctimonious version of the “Cool Girl” bit from David Fincher’s Gone Girl (Netflix), the speech about “being thin but not too thin” and “being a boss but not being mean” has struck a chord—but I can’t call it good cinema. Delivered by America Ferrera at her least subtle, it reminded me of Kartik Aaryan’s girls-are-evil monologues in the Pyaar Ka Punchnama movies (Netflix), speeches that had made chauvinists feel seen.

Having to make that comparison is, however, quite telling. There, thankfully, isn’t much mainstream entertainment calculated to please incels, and it is shameful that women would feel catered to as infrequently.

Fincher rushed to mind again with Oppenheimer. The myth of Prometheus, the premise of a visionary with an invention that would empower the malicious and be misused beyond control, a film told by cutting dynamically through depositions and cross-examinations… The Nolan film reminded me of Fincher’s masterful The Social Network (Netflix), one of the finest American films this century. Nolan is peaking as a craftsman, with extraordinary cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, who uses IMAX cameras like 70mm ones, a superlative background score, smashing editing and sound design, but the film’s need to manufacture a “villain” in order to let J. Robert Oppenheimer off the hook is depressingly childish.

Oppenheimer also features an unsurprisingly controversial scene where the scientist’s mistress makes him read out a passage from the Bhagvad Gita while they make love. Obviously this shouldn’t be censored, but it really is such a lousy, portentous scene — a demonstration of Nolan’s irrepressible need to bloviate.

Nolan’s mastery lies in the way he bombards you with information, enough to make you feel like you read or learnt something you had to apply yourself in order to keep up. That results in an audience feeling rewarded. He makes movies that make the viewer feel intelligent, but these are not always the same as intelligent movies. Oppenheimer is wonderfully performed—Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr and Matt Damon are all fantastic—but too morally reductive. Imagine Dr Strangelove with General Buck Turgidson as a hero.

The day Nolan accepts that he is heir to a blockbuster-maker like James Cameron—an incredible legacy in itself—instead of an auteur like Kubrick, will be a day to rejoice, for he can scale back on the self-seriousness.

I find it fascinating that Nolan and now Gerwig—partly due to the “From director Greta Gerwig” T-shirt immortalised by Ryan Gosling (who is magnificent in Barbie)—are leading a new demographic: cults that aggressively celebrate directors, with loud fans who will not brook disagreement. Years ago, while reviewing The Dark Knight Rises, I had tweeted that “Christopher Nolan fans are just Salman Khan fans that went to college”, and I remain convinced of this bull-headedness. I will always appreciate love for a filmmaker, but cannot understand the need to bring everyone else aboard. Some of us are not Team Barbenheimer, and surely those making the films and selling the toys don’t mind. They’re in the pink.

Also read: Watching ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ after ‘Oppenheimer’

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