Discover more from The Best Newsletter
The "father of the atomic bomb," a certain children's toy, and a family of foul-mouthed televangelists walk into a bar...
As you have already ascertained, I’m bringing you some thoughts this week on both Oppenheimer and Barbie.
To answer your first question, no, I technically did not participate in “Barbenheimer.” I did see both movies but not back to back as my viewings were 24 hours apart. (My niece Zoë, who joined me for Oppenheimer, did pull off the doubleheader, and my hat is off to her.)
I never had any question that I’d see Oppenheimer when I first saw the trailer in theaters last year. I was less sure about Barbie, even though I did get a kick out of seeing production images of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling rollerblading around my old neighborhood in Venice Beach (I wrote about the pleasures of seeing Venice onscreen last week).
But I’ve liked some of Greta Gerwig’s previous work (specifically, Frances Ha and Lady Bird), and by Tuesday, Barbie had become too undeniable a phenomenon for me to sit out this year’s biggest summer blockbuster.
Most important, I’m utterly devoted to my loyal readers. So, yes, I turned my male gaze to Barbie for you.
…Movie I Saw This Week
Oppenheimer (2023) — Directed by Christopher Nolan
Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because of something regrettable I said or some other basically meaningless — but important feeling — thing. Can you imagine trying to sleep at night when you’re responsible for shepherding the creation of the most destructive weapons ever conceived?
That’s the way I look at Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s latest time-shifting, brain-twisting, mind-bending epic.
There are several narrative strands and timelines operating in this movie, but essentially the story boils down to this: how did it feel to be J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”?
Spoiler alert: not great, Bob.
Oppenheimer is unmistakably a Christopher Nolan work, full of contrasts and confusion yet somehow entertaining. It is massive yet intimate, thanks to the intensity of Cillian Murphy’s haunting performance in the title role. It is visually arresting though it’s mostly just people talking. And it is long yet rarely boring, relentlessly propelled by Ludwig Göransson’s score.
The film is a rare cinematic experience in that it’s not a superhero movie or a sequel or a piece of branded intellectual property (see below). It’s a movie for adults. And it requires that those adults do some work to keep up. (Some prior knowledge of McCarthyism and the nuclear politics of the Cold War, for example, are helpful.)
In probably any other director’s hands, the film would have collapsed under the weight of its ambitions. But Oppenheimer crosses the finish line in one piece, and I left the IMAX theater feeling overwhelmed in the best way possible, wanting to know more about this tortured soul and what he unleashed on the world.
…Marketing Job I Saw This Week
Barbie (2023) — Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world
Life in plastic is fantastic
-“Barbie Girl” by Aqua (1997)
I was in a Hampton Inn breakfast room last Friday morning. A TV above the toast table was showing Good Morning America. I wasn’t paying close attention and the sound was off. But I did notice that almost every segment of the show seemed to be Barbie-themed in some way.
I did some quick corporate media math. GMA is on ABC which is owned by Disney. But Barbie, the new Greta Gerwig-directed film starring Margot Robbie, is produced by Warner Bros., which is a division of Warner Bros. Discovery.
In other words, Disney’s flagship morning show was giving an ungodly amount of free promotion to another corporation’s movie (and without any celebrity interviews due to the actors’ strike).
I was aware at that point that the tracking for Barbie’s domestic opening weekend had gone past $100 million to $130 million and was even looking to potentially surpass $150 million — a giant smash in our fragmented media world.
The “Barbenheimer” meme, creating the unlikely pairing of Barbie and Oppenheimer, had already conquered social media. Dozens of tie-ins were working their magic in everything from a Progressive insurance ad to an HGTV show to even an Architectural Digest video.
All the brands wanted in on Barbie.
Plus, Barbie already had incredible built-in name recognition as a well-known piece of intellectual property (and totem of nostalgia) that has fueled debates about feminism for decades.
But when I saw a Disney property going all in on Barbie, I knew the film was going way beyond box office expectations, regardless of whether the movie was any good.
Well, the opening weekend did surpass $150 million domestically. And as of this morning, the movie has grossed more than $472 million worldwide.
Two days ago, on the podcast The Town, Warner Brothers marketing head Josh Goldstine took a victory lap, saying, “We wanted the movie to become a movement.”
Putting aside whether a movie inspired by a children’s doll should be the basis for a “movement,” Goldstine’s team and WBD are swimming in gold coins this week.
When I went to see Oppenheimer on Monday, several people in the theater were dressed in pink, clearly embarking on the “Barbenheimer” double. And when I saw Barbie on Tuesday, the attendees in the crowded theater appeared to cut across a wide variety of demographics.
Amazingly, the Warner Bros. marketing machine managed to convince moviegoers that a story essentially about existential dread and feminism is for everyone. And Gerwig seems to have delivered: on Rotten Tomatoes, Barbie is 90 percent “fresh” with critics and has an 86 percent approval rating with audiences.
Life in plastic, it seems, is indeed fantastic.
(My review: I enjoyed it. The movie is about as subversive as it can be considering its commercial ambitions and the amount of product placement and corporate branding that pops up throughout.)
…Series I Watched This Week
The Righteous Gemstones — Created by Danny McBride
Airing on HBO, streaming on Max
I cut the existential dread of Oppenheimer and Barbie by catching up with the Gemstone family, those foul-mouthed, money-loving, televangelist hypocrites who are always good for some laughs.
Much like Succession, The Righteous Gemstones follows a King Lear-like structure with three rival siblings (played by Danny McBride, Edi Patterson, and Adam DeVine) jockeying to succeed the family’s aging patriarch (John Goodman) as the head of the family business.
While the family business on Succession is a global media empire, on The Righteous Gemstones, it’s a southern megachurch.
And while the Roys were all about subtext, manipulation, and secret alliances, the Gemstones are more overt in their hatred of each other. The insults and profanity are pointed (and plentiful), as is the show’s mocking of the family’s particular brand of charlatanism.
(I would love to see a Jetsons Meet the Flintstones-style crossover episode in which Kendall Roy and Eli Gemstone commiserate about how disappointed they are in their idiot children.)
Created by Danny McBride, The Righteous Gemstones fits neatly in his canon of profane absurdist humor alongside Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. He’s definitely a vibe that’s not for everyone, but I’m on board.
The Righteous Gemstones is currently in its third season.