Review: Bursting with Color, Wit and Just a Bit Too Much Plot, Filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s Barbie Gives the Doll Depth

Filmmaker Greta Gerwig is three for three. Her first film as director, Lady Bird, was a funny-because-it's-true romp through teenage-dom, the epitome of an indie darling when it was released in 2017. She sailed right into her sophomore effort, the transcendent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a moving and warm story of sisterly love and female independence that I named my favorite film of 2019. She triumphs again in the delightfully silly, self-aware if slightly overstuffed Barbie, a film that shouldn't be as good as it is yet manages to do what so many others have failed to do before her: create a cohesive narrative around an otherwise story-less popular children's toy.

Written with her partner, Noah Baumbach, Barbie is part hero journey, part nostalgia trip and all camp. Gerwig and her creative team (production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jacqueline Durran) create the most Barbie-fied world any little girl could dream of, and they lean into it. Hard. Everything is plastic and pointless—cartons of milk have nothing in them, binoculars don't have any lenses, Barbie's dream car sort of just...goes—and gorgeous to look at, bursting with color and bringing Barbie's play world vibrantly to life. At least the first half hour of the film is spent basking in this sensory overload of opulence.

Barbie Land, as it's known, is populated mostly by Barbies and Kens, played by various actors all representing the many versions of the doll that exist (Skipper, Allan (Michael Cera) and others show up here and there, too), with Stereotypical Barbie's Stereotypical Ken played by the up-for-anything, fully-committed-to-the-bit Ryan Gosling. The script is chocked full of in-on-the-joke dialogue, from a narrator (Helen Mirren) who pipes in with witty voice-over quips to the barbs the Barbies and Kens throw back and forth about their lack of genitals, perpetually pointed feet and more. If you're not up to playing along, it could get exhausting.

After more than a little world-building, the film's plot kicks in when Stereotypical Barbie starts noticing that her life isn't quite so perfect, the first bits of an existential crisis creeping into her blonde, bedazzled existence. One trip to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) later and SB and her Ken (who stows away in her dream car in order to earn her affection) are off to the Real World (Los Angeles, natch) to see if they can find the person playing with her and repair their apparently broken bond. In LA, it's Gloria (America Ferrera) and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) who have been struggling in their own lives and impacting Barbie's; Gloria happens to work at Mattel, who soon get intel that a Barbie and Ken have escaped Barbie Land and need to be captured.

There is a lot happening in Barbie, from the plot to what's on screen at any given moment, but Gerwig keeps a strong pace and healthy respect for her narrative, meaning the film never overstays its welcome. I haven't even mentioned the patriarchy plot that's laid over the second half's proceedings, a sharp and sometimes too on-the-nose examination of contemporary American gender politics. As Barbie gets to know Gloria and Sasha—and as things begin to deteriorate with Ken—Barbie becomes a surprisingly poignant exploration of self-image, purpose and the difference one can make in the lives of others.

It's all delivered with enthusiasm and authenticity by a star-studded cast; though Robbie is often hit-or-miss for me, she excels here as a doll who'd once had not a care in the world coming to terms with her new reality. And yes, Ryan Gosling is an absolute hoot as a Ken who responds to his insecurities about his value to Barbie through toxic masculinity and overcompensation. But the real star here is Ferrera, who turns in the most grounded performance of the film (by design, I'm sure) and easily the best monologue of its nearly two-hour run time.

The biggest question that looms whenever someone mentions "the Barbie movie" is, what is it about? Gerwig answers that question in a myriad of ways, some of them funny, some moving, but all of them well-articulated. It's about transformation and claiming one's path in life. It's about changing what we can and advocating for change where we must. It's about legacy and intention, and how much of each we can control. It's about the power of the individual within a community, and the power of a community to shape an individual. And it's about how fashions, toys, even politicians and corporations may come and go, but if Barbie (the doll and her many iterations) can teach us anything, it's that we can adapt to any passing fad.

Barbie opens in theaters July 21.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Lisa Trifone