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.…