Director: Olivia Wilde
Stars: Harry Styles, Florence Pugh, Chris Pine
Hot on the heels of the press tour from hell, but with just enough time to cool off from the rather bemused response from the critics at Venice, Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling finally crash lands in cinemas to the joy of Harry Styles fans and the apprehensive curiosity of a bunch of other folks probably. Wilde must be glad it’s all over at last. Her movie’s out there and the whole debacle can be put behind her. Irrespective of – or perhaps because of – the discourse surrounding the release of this movie, WB are likely to make their money back and then some. It won’t be the career-ender it could’ve been. But now that we’re, oh, a fortnight’s distance from the most recent press debacle, how does the movie stack-up against the furore that’s surrounded it.
Was it all worth it, in the end?
Meet Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh). She has it all. Husband with a good job. A tasteful, pretty-’50s house to maintain in the pristine Orwellian desert town of Victory. Catty neighbours to clink drinks with. Who could possibly ask for more? Yet within minutes of establishing this poorly-established haven of post-war bliss, we’re keyed into the idea that something’s off. Alice’s cogs start a’turnin’, especially when one of her peers – KiKi Layne’s vastly underserved Margaret – starts publicly denouncing their planned community. Honestly, a fancy soiree at the home of the town guru and sole employer Frank (Chris Pine) is almost ruined. Not enough to stop Alice’s hubby Jack (Harry Styles) from trying to ball her in Frank’s bedroom, mind.
In fact sex is a big part of Alice and Jack’s life. Their marriage appears insatiable. It tessellates with this picture postcard version of America when everyone has as much of everything they want and more. But still… Alice feels a lacking. When she cracks an egg… it’s empty. All shell. And when this lacking turns to suspicion, her world starts crumbling around her.
For a good hour this registers in a perpetually resetting series of waking hallucinations that vary greatly in their originality (i.e., one set-piece has some, the rest don’t). Mostly they plunder any number of cinematic betters (Black Swan, Under the Skin, not to mention everything from Busby Berkley to M Night Shyamalan). Indeed, this sense of familiarity encompasses the whole picture like the invisible dome Alice almost perceives cocooning Frank’s made-to-measure utopia. Don’t Worry Darling has its roots firmly in the sense of cultish sci-fi conspiracy that drove The Stepford Wives, but with enough space for everything from The Truman Show to The Matrix (and one imagines her name’s not Alice by coincidence either). Sometimes putting your inspirations front and centre works for a picture, nodding adeptly to a beloved heritage. Other times… well, it just feels like someone else has done the hard work for you.
It’s clear from the off that Wilde is setting in motion a piece designed to swipe snidely at our culture’s widespread and insipient misogyny. No problem there. Swipe away. But it doesn’t hit hard enough, thanks to Wilde’s seeming mixed feelings on the amount of bliss there is in domestic bliss, and especially thanks to Alice’s increasingly frustrating stupidity – something which really undermines the sense of consternation Don’t Worry Darling is striving for. The film finally feels as though it’s getting somewhere during a tense evening of celebrations when Frank invites himself over for supper. But Alice, seemingly blind to all of the cues around her, pushes all her chips forward with nothing in her hand. Considering some late film reveals that finally shed some light on her character’s capabilities and intelligence, these decisions baffle as much as they annoy.
Admittedly, trying to sleuth out Frank’s Machiavellian scheme along with Alice is kept pacy and intriguing – not least thanks to the sterling work from music supervisor Randall Poster who supplies the period-specific hits – but the ultimate reveal is woefully underwhelming, increasing the sense already established that Don’t Worry Darling is flimsily assembles from the pieces of sharper material. Your conversations at the pub afterward or on the walk home will likely amount to cataloguing the unanswered questions and conspicuous plot-holes. Finally, you realise, what you have been given doesn’t add up to much at all, and Wilde’s sought after social commentary has disappeared like the plummeting plane Alice chases out into the desert.
Pugh is as committed as ever, but the character is barely there and, as mentioned, disappointingly dimwitted. Pine coasts on his inherent charisma. Styles finally puts to bed the question of whether he really has the chops as an actor (he doesn’t). Wilde herself fills a role larger than expected or desired, to the point where you wish it had been given to someone else (perhaps the focus puller, who gets their own job right most of the time). Supporting players like Nick Kroll and the aforementioned Layne grab scraps where they can.
A burlesque nod to sex-in-the-ice-cubes subliminal messaging is a nice touch – and a relatively subtle one by this film’s standards – but for the most part Don’t Worry Darling is obvious, ungainly or just plain thieving. It isn’t the ending that leaves you wanting more; it’s the whole damned picture. Ironically this big and colourful studio picture feels like an exercise in brainwashing itself. Glazed, anemic, not brave enough to actually ruffle feathers. Rebellion as an aspirational lifestyle. Not something to go out and seize.
Don’t bother darling.