This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.
On the way home from a family screening of Barbenheimer, my parents and I made our cases for which of the two brilliant movies we’d just watched was the better one. Everyone present had hugely enjoyed both Barbie and Oppenheimer, but we were split down the middle about which movie we’d preferred. My mother strongly made her argument by pointing out that you could fairly identify some movies that are sort of similar to Oppenheimer, but nobody can name a movie similar to Barbie.
This was a fair point. Barbie has moments that recall His Girl Friday, The Wizard of Oz, and Singin’ in the Rain. It certainly draws from the big budget Technicolor Hollywood musical and the screwball comedy, and in its own way revives both of those genres. But Barbie is hard to even classify by a basic genre like “fantasy” or “comedy.”
And this clearly has to do with who’s writing the movie. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are simply incapable of writing the same movie twice. Gerwig’s three solo directorial features to date are a high school movie set in the Aughties, a Civil War-era adaptation of Louisa May Alcott, and Barbie. My mother pointed out that Gerwig has made three completely different movies much the same way Christopher Nolan has made the same movie 12 times.
A lot of what makes Barbie so striking is its meticulously curated unreality. Barbieland is a classic Hollywood movie set that would make The Wizard of Oz blush, with its striking pink that caused an international shortage and a vibrant palette that makes Arriflex look like vintage Technicolor. Nobody is Barbieland is a real person — props are their reality. This is a Barbie movie that treats Barbie with weird literalism.
There are early indicators that Barbie is offbeat. The PG-13 rating is striking for a Barbie movie. So is the opening homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, where narrator Helen Mirren introduces the mythology of Barbie, with Margot Robbie standing in for Kubrick’s monolith. The whole aesthetic is in the uncanny valley in a way blockbusters, with their current half-hearted commitment to pseudo-reality, just aren’t anymore. All of these things are quirks rather than bizarre moments of transformation. It’s when Barbie starts saying lines like “do you guys ever think about dying?” that Barbie goes off the rails in a delightful way.
During my second viewing of Barbie, my partner Janet, who is a philosophy major and has read her share of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, said Barbie’s irrepressible thoughts of death marked the moment she realized that Barbie was in fact a weird movie. When we left the theater, Janet pointed out that Gerwig had actually kind of nailed existentialism. And again, given that this movie is about Barbie dolls, this is extraordinarily weird.
Remarkably, Barbie nails the horrors of its premise without being cynical about them. Being Barbie is fun — it’s just inherently ephemeral, like any pleasure. The movie recognizes something inherently patriarchal about Barbie, namely how it envisions femininity as a basically conservative institution. This is damaging for Ken too, in that Ken exists as a superfluous extension of Barbie, as the woman must have a man. This is simply not a lens on masculinity you’d expect from this movie. Sure, “patriarchy isolates and harms men too” is hardly a breakthrough observation to anybody who’s been slightly observant about the world, but this is a weirdly insightful channel for that idea.
All three of Gerwig’s movies share a throughline of young women struggling with femininity and eventually graduating to adulthood. Barbie is particularly suited to this treatment as an IP with long-lasting, intergenerational appeal to young girls. The resulting movie is somehow in dialogue with history and contemporary politics.
The highlight of the movie really is Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, who trade in contemporary acting trends of psychological realism for a pre-Brando, Old Hollywood style of unreal melodrama, not unlike performances out of a Howard Hawks movie. In short, they’re playing with dolls.
Barbie has its shortcomings. The second act sags a bit, descending into standard kid’s movies shenanigans with Scooby Doo-style chases featuring Will Ferrell. And its feminism is hardly innovative. But when everything else is so drastically different from the glut of beige garbage that’s dominated Hollywood for years now, a few minor problems are hardly enough to sink Barbie. This is about as good as Hollywood gets. And Matchbox 20 has never been better.