Welcome to Beat the Algorithm, a recurring column providing relevant and diverse streaming recommendations based on your favorite movies. This time, we’re recommending movies like Greta Gerwig’s plastic (fantastic) 2023 movie Barbie.
It’s a Barbie world, and we’re just living in it.
Greta Gerwig‘s maximalist masterpiece follows Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robie) as she travels from her plastic paradise to the real world after showing symptoms of malfunction. Confronting what it means to be an actual woman rather than an ideal, Barbie is thrust into a journey of self-discovery that involves way more existentialism than you’d expect from a Mattel-backed product.
Given that Barbie is, uh, doing numbers (see what happens when you make a movie in color, Hollywood?), we figured we’d put together a list of movies to check out if you saw and enjoyed Gerwig’s flic. While we’ve combed through Gerwig’s own list of influences, as cited in this chat with Letterboxd, we’ve also brought some of our own double-bill contenders to the table.
This is your official warning that the following contains some narrative and thematic spoilers for Barbie. Proceed at your own risk.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Intrepid journalist Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) visits her newspaper editor ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) to let him know she’s getting married tomorrow. Not on Walter’s watch.
If “She’s everything. He’s just Ken” was a movie it would be His Girl Friday. And if Barbie were made in the 1940s (a big “if” considering Mattel launched the doll in 1959), Cary Grant would play Ken. No one sells simping for an increadible woman while being terrible quite like Cary. And don’t adjust your television sets, the dialogue in this Howard Hawks screwball does indeed break the sound barrier.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Written and directed by Jacques Demy, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg follows a heartbroken 16-year-old Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) as she rethinks her future after her boyfriend’s deployment in colonial Algeria. As Gerwig underlines in her chat with Letterboxd, Barbie holds a massive visual debt to Demy’s classic: “Rodrigo Prieto and I — he shot the film and he’s one of the greatest DPs who ever lived — were talking about that layering of the colors and how you’d shoot five different shades of pink or red in one shot and not have it overwhelm anything, that you feel like there’s separation, but that it’s vibrant. Everything feels painterly, and that was a big part of it.”
There is a lot of Jacques Tati‘s DNA in Barbie. And while Gerwig also cites the also-very-good Mon Oncle in her chat with Letterboxd, it’s PlayTime that shares the strongest (and most obvious) visual musculature with Gerwig’s film. “I always thought of Mattel as existing slightly in Jacques Tati’s world,” Gerwig confessed, which is very funny and slightly derogatory if you know anything about Tati.
In PlayTime, Tati stars as the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, who gets lost in a labyrinth of hyperconsumerist modernity. As Gerwig underlines, Tati’s intentionally artificial approach to mise-en-scene and absurdism were massive inspirations. Truly, anyone who got a kick out of Barbie would do well to check out any of Tati’s accident-prone excursions as M. Hulot.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
After a first-time guardian angel jumps the gun, wannabe football star Joe (Warren Beatty) finds himself in the afterlife. When the mistake is discovered, all parties involved are devastated to learn that Joe’s body has already been cremated. Luckily, the recently-murdered multi-millionaire Leo Farnsworth’s body is up for grabs … which doesn’t sit all that well with his murderers.
On the one hand, I won’t lie to you: I am partially recommending Heaven Can Wait because Warren Beatty is Hollywood’s greatest himbo. Ken only knows beach. And Warren (as Joe) only knows football. Bless them both.
But more to the point, Elaine May‘s breezy (and slyly dark) screwball script creates a certain “I bet a woman wrote this” vibe than other cinematic adaptations of Harry Segall’s play. It’s a movie about what it means to be alive and make the most of an imperfect, awkward existence. It’s also about Warren Beatty doing pushups outside the pearly gates. Movies contain multitudes.
Inarguably the most fish-out-of-water story on this list, Splash follows romantic New York City businessman Allen (Tom Hanks) as he falls in love with Madison (Daryl Hannah), who has a big, wet, scaly secret. She’s a mermaid!
Even if Barbie didn’t have mermaids in it (it does), Splash shares enough thematic beats that the double feature basically programs itself. She doesn’t speak a word of English. She doesn’t understand human customs. But she does know how to splurge at Bloomingdale’s. Icon.
Okay, listen. I know that Mannequin doesn’t have the best reputation but you’re just going to have to trust me on this. Sometimes (brace yourselves) the critics are wrong. People were not ready for the thrilling love story of an overly-artistic department store window dresser and a mannequin who is imbued with the spirit of an ancient Egyptian princess when no one is looking. Did I mention this movie also stars peak-of-his-hotness James Spader as the greasiest man who’s ever lived? If you’re going to watch one movie (that isn’t Barbie) about a plastic girl trying to figure herself out in a capitalist hellscape, make it Mannequin.
The Truman Show (1998)
Conspicuously-named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives a charmed suburban life. That is until he starts to suspect that his entire existence is a sham; a song and dance being broadcast 24/7 as the world’s foremost reality show. Directed by the great Peter Weir, with a presciently satirical script from Kiwi screenwriter Andrew Niccol, The Truman Show is a modern classic with plenty in common with Gerwig’s Barbie including constructed realities and challenging journeys of self-discovery.
Life Size (2000)
A seven-year-old tomboy named Casey (Lindsay Lohan) decides to try and resurrect her dead mom with a Necronomicon she found in a bookstore. However, thanks to a surprise gift from her neighbor, Casey accidentally gives a plastic doll named Eve (Tyra Banks) the gift of life. Full-size and stoked to be alive, Eve sets off to leave the world better than she found it … until the harsh realities of being human set in.
I would be shocked, appalled, and deeply suspicious if Greta Gerwig claimed that Barbie wasn’t indebted in some small part to Life-Size. Aggressively shot in Canada with that unmistakable (and unintentional) DTV Disney absurdist stank on it, Life-Size isn’t a “good movie.” But it shares enough similarities with Barbie that it’s more than worthy of a spot on this list. Plus, it’s helmed by The House on Sorority Row and A Cinderella Story director Mark Rosman. Talk about range.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Recommending that Barbie fans watch Legally Blonde? What? Like it’s hard?
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) follows her dud ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law only to paint the town pink. A whip-smart polymath femme armed with contagious positivity, Elle and Gerwig’s take on Barbie have a lot in common. Lord help us all if they unionize.
Raised by elves in the North Pole, Buddy (Will Ferrell) is shocked to learn that his real parents are human … and even more shocked to learn that his biological dad (James Caan) is on the naughty list. So, at Santa’s behest, it’s up to Buddy to bring a little Christmas cheer to the rough-and-tumble Big Apple.
Elf might initially seem like low-hanging fruit thanks to both films’ use of Ferrell. But John Favreau‘s 2003 holiday comedy actually has quite a bit in common with Barbie. From their bubbly, wide-eyed babes in the big city narratives to their intentionally artificial fantasy setpieces, a wintertime Barbie watch would be in good company with this Christmas caper.
An animated Disney princess named Giselle (Amy Adams) finds herself in the real world after being pushed down a well by the evil Queen Narissa (Idina Menzel). Finding herself in “live-action” New York City, Giselle’s romantic outlook and unflappable optimism are challenged at every turn. Thankfully, Giselle crosses paths with a jaded divorce lawyer named Robert (Patrick Dempsey) who doesn’t believe in happily ever afters but does give her a roof over her head. Now to simply thwart the evil Queen’s assassination attempts!
While Enchanted isn’t nearly dripping with as much existential dread as Barbie, the two films both present fish-out-of-water plots about headstrong fictional femmes forced to contend with the shitty realities of being a woman. Bright, whimsical, and more self-aware than most Disney fare, Enchanted holds up and would make for one heck of a double bill.
Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar (2021)
Two middle-aged (and aggressively midwestern) best friends (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) take a trip to Florida after realizing their lives are sorely lacking in “sparkle.” Sure enough, the titular resort serves as the backdrop for a riotous romp of romantic flings, renewed purpose, and a Bond villain-level plot involving killer mosquitos.
A rare studio comedy that flew largely under the radar thanks to an untimely release in the middle of COVID-19, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is a colorful, absurdist mood-booster. From Jamie Dornan‘s Ken-esque musical performance to the film’s unabashed embrace of the color spectrum, Josh Greenbaum‘s film deserves more eyes on it. Especially those of Barbie-enjoyers.