Olivia Wilde’s second feature behind the camera, Don’t Worry Darlingwill more likely be remembered for the offscreen intrigue — tabloid romance, lead actor replacement, a glaringly public serving of custody papers, a rumored clash between director and star — than it is for much else in this umpteenth. Stepford Wives knockoff. That’s not to say it’s without sizeable pluses, chief among them a meaty lead role for the dependably compelling Florence Pugh, who hasn’t played a woman in this much peril since Midsommar. It also scores points for allowing Chris Pine to show what a devilishly charismatic villain he can be.
The high-concept, low-satisfaction psychological thriller marks an ambitious upgrade in scope for Wilde from the character-driven coming-of-age comedy of Booksmart, and she handles the physical aspects of the project with assurance. It’s just a shame all the effort has gone into a script without much of that 2019 debut’s disarming freshness.
Don’t Worry Darling
The Bottom Line
High gloss, low originality.
One of the big draws, of course, is It Boy Harry Styles, whose rabid fans appear to feel such deranged ownership that they’ve scarcely refrained from burning Wilde effigies to decry their off-camera relationship. She’s 10 years his senior! How dare she! Leaving all that nonsense aside — it’s their business, people, relax — Styles carries himself with confidence as eager young company man and loving but increasingly conflicted husband Jack Chambers.
The early part of the movie — a nonstop river of cocktails fueling a whirl of parties during which Jack and his wife Alice (Pugh) can’t keep their hands off each other — is so damn sexy you might want to move into the mysterious Victory Project community and disregard the signs of something sinister behind all the smiling faces and perfect marriages.
When things turn dark and strange and Jack’s idealized world is threatened, that’s when doubts arise about Styles’ range. Is he just a magnetic screen presence who looks fabulous in 1950s threads, or an actor capable of depth and nuance? He’s fine in the role, but based on this, the jury’s still out.
While Wilde has cited mind-benders like Inception, The Matrix and The Truman Show as inspirations, only the last of those comes to mind while watching, alongside The Stepford Wives. But the film has just as much in common with the blunt social commentary of shows like Amazon’s Them or movies like George Clooney’s Suburbiconwhich wrenched fear and alienation out of Black trauma while finding nothing enlightening to say about it.
In place of racism, Don’t Worry Darling creeps us out with the rigid enforcement of antiquated gender roles — a 1950s patriarchal order bent on convincing women that homemaking and raising children are the ultimate aspiration while keeping them in the dark about the mysteries of their husbands’ work for the company. But there’s nothing complex or subversive behind that façade of perky housewives and roosts ruled by men.
It’s certainly an eye-catching setup. Arianne Phillips’ retro-chic fashion-spread costumes and Katie Byron’s swanky midcentury-modern sets (Palm Springs, California, is the direct reference) are a glossy visual feast, even if there’s a hint of Ryan Murphy-style art-directorial excess. But the screenplay — a Black List title by brothers Carey and Shane Van Dyke, retooled by Katie Silberman, one of Wilde’s writers on Booksmart — doesn’t come together with persuasive revelations once the cracks in the utopia have been laid bare.
The pristine suburban enclave works in smooth lockstep. The Chambers and their neighbors — which include glam cocktail queen Bunny (Wilde) and her go-getter husband Dean (Nick Kroll) — party hard together at night in their restricted enclave and then the wives wave off their husbands at exactly the same time each. morning as they head out in their rainbow-hued convertibles to drive across the desert to Victory headquarters, where the women are forbidden to venture. The guys’ work is top secret, and why would the women even need to know? They have everything they want.
They clean house and then get together to gossip, hit the cocktail cart, swim in the pool or shop at the special Victory retail outlets where everything is provided for them, free of charge. In between, they attend dance classes conducted by the glacially poised Shelley (Gemma Chan), whose husband Frank (Pine) is the Svengali-like mastermind behind Victory. “There is beauty in control,” coos Shelley. “There is grace in symmetry.”
Then they head home to fix dinner, greeting their husbands at the door with a drink in hand. If they’re like Alice, and still an object of insatiable desire, their painstakingly prepared roast beef spread might be swept to the floor while Jack chows down on something else entirely.
At a welcome mixer for wide-eyed new couple Violet (Sydney Chandler) and Bill (Douglas Smith), Frank holds court like a slick evangelist, celebrating the rewards of a world reshaped “into the way things are supposed to be.” But a tear in the fabric of this carefully curated reality becomes evident when Margaret (KiKi Layne) starts freaking out and has to be whisked off home by her concerned husband Ted (Ari’el Stachel).
The creepy dr. Collins (Timothy Simons, doing a lugubrious reversal on his bumbling Veep character), who built the community with Frank, assures the guests that everything’s fine. But unsettling insights into what triggered Margaret’s meltdown prompt Alice to start interrogating Jack. What exactly is the “development of progressive materials” that he claims is Victory’s core business? Her sleep is increasingly disturbed by dreams of Busby Berkeley-style dance routines featuring the wives, by Margaret’s warnings that the place was built on lies, and by woozy echoes of Frank’s motivational talks, constantly booming from a television somewhere.
When Alice witnesses a plane crash and is told she imagined it, a confrontation with Frank begins to build. These scenes between Pugh’s frightened but tenacious Alice and Pine’s slippery manipulator Frank, who seems amused and more than a little enticed by her rebelliousness, generate real sparks as she accuses him of controlling them. It’s a treat to watch Pine put his ridiculously handsome looks and easygoing charm to such malevolent use.
Alice’s increasing resistance to the culty Victory rules makes life difficult for Jack, especially once he’s chosen by Frank for advancement at a company function that culminates in the chilling chant: “Whose world is this? Ours!” This is also the one scene where Styles gets to cut loose, launching into a boisterous rubber-limbed dance routine on stage to celebrate his promotion. There’s an air of almost manic determination in his moves, as if Jack is aware the world is closing in on the woman he loves but tries to stave off that disaster by sheer force of will.
The inevitable Big Reveal that occurs when Alice makes a break for it is somewhat novel, though it doesn’t really hold water, like a Black Mirror episode that should have been sent back to the writers’ room for another pass or two. It also seems just a bit basic that it all points to a nefarious movement to combat the emasculation of the fragile male and the advancement of women seeking career fulfillment and financial independence — like the most elementary feminist cartoon take on male oppression.
The tense final act goes through the motions but doesn’t deliver where it counts — with a provocative payoff. Even so, it’s gripping to watch Pugh go up against doctors deftly gaslighting her, or worse, and nasty-looking men in red coveralls working for Victory security, ready to haul off anyone threatening to expose the unwholesome underbelly of this paternalistic paradise. The menace that Alice is fleeing is undermined by shaky storytelling, but to Pugh’s credit, we fear for her throughout the pulse-racing climax.
Part of that is also thanks to the brisk propulsion of cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s crisp visuals and the additional push of John Powell’s big, forceful score. It’s always good to see an emerging woman director shepherd a large-scale project like this, with plum resources and a deluxe cast. But Don’t Worry Darling is obvious even when it turns outlandish. How many more times do we need the ironic deployment of the doo-wop classic “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)” to be convinced it can be a nightmare?
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