Though we may believe, thanks to the dubious miracle of social media, that we know everything about everything, there’s no way to assess what’s going on in a movie—or even to guess what might have gone on behind the scenes—until you’ve actually watched it. Olivia Wilde’s second film as a director, Don’t Worry Darling, starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles—and playing out of competition at the 79th Venice Film Festival—has already been decreed a disaster by many who have seen only the trailer. Many of the naysayers-in-advance are those who have heard the gossip—and who hasn’t?—that Pugh became so frustrated with Wilde on the set, particularly in light of her romance with Styles, that she ostensibly had to direct herself. Is that possible? Anything is possible. But it’s also plausible that Wilde, who gave us the extremely likable, if slight, 2019 comedy Booksmart, is capable of making a handsome-looking and reasonably engaging movie that’s somewhere between a disaster and a triumph. Don’t Worry Darling, no matter where you stand on the matter of Olivia Wilde’s personal life—or, for that matter, what you make of her ambitions—deserves to be judged on its own merits, and it does have a few.
Pugh and Styles star as Jack and Alice Chambers, newcomers to a scrubbed-clean desert community which appears to be a JFK-era utopia for people who just want to have a nice marriage, live in a pretty house, maybe raise a family. Every morning, the men kiss their wives goodbye and hop in into their jaunty tailfin cars, zooming off through the desert in unison to “work,” whatever that might be: they’re part of a shadowy experiment called the Victory Project, spearheaded by a charismatic Ken-doll work and lifestyle guru named Frank (Chris Pine), who has forbidden them to tell their wives about whatever it is they do all day out there in the desert.
The wives, in turn, are forbidden to ask. There’s no need for them to work outside the home, nor do they have the desire to. Their jobs are housecleaning, cooking, shopping for cute clothes on the Victory account and attending ballet lessons. They take care of the children, if they have them, and greet their husbands cheerfully at the end of the day. A little trolley, the Victory Town Link, takes them anywhere they might need to go; one character expresses relief at not needing to learn how to drive. Alice seems pleased enough to be there, and she’s very fond of her new neighbor, Bunny, a saucy mom who’s always ready with a wry joke and a cocktail. (She’s played by Wilde herself.)
But before long, Alice notices there’s something a little odd about the place. Another neighbor, Margaret (KiKi Layne), has has gone mad, drifting about like a zombie, shunned by everyone in the community. (The raft of excessively colorful neighbors includes Nick Kroll, as your classic burger-flipping dad, and Kate Berlant as a heavily pregnant deadpan wisecracker.) Supposedly something has happened to Margaret’s son, the sort of thing that would generally galvanize everyone in a small, close-knit neighborhood, but no one will talk about it. The Victory doctor has “treated” Margaret and reassured everyone that she’s on the mend and all will be well soon. But Alice—a bright one—deduces that something terrible has happened to Margaret, and Victory is covering it up.
Yet Victory is such a perfect place! Jack keeps reminding her. They’re lucky to be there—he’s fought for this opportunity. And in a cartoon way, these two lovebirds seem like the happiest couple alive, as evidenced by the moment Jack goes down on Alice as she leans back on the dining room table. That sort of thing is a total rarity in contemporary American movies. So how can life at Victory be so bad?
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Alice is about to find out. Don’t Worry Darling is a little Stepford Wives, a little Repulsion. The script is by Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke, and the plot is cleverly worked out: there’s an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist that’s much better than nearly every Shyamalan twist, save perhaps the one in The Sixth Sense. And there’s at least the germ of an intelligent idea at the heart of Don’t Worry Darling. You can laugh at traditionalists like Jordan Peterson, who bang their tiny drums as they shout about the current crisis in masculinity, and even advocate enforced monogamy. But given how many women have recently lost autonomy over their own bodies, a science-fiction fantasy about a town filled with compliant, manageable womenfolk, taken care of by good old-fashioned working men, isn’t all that nuts.
Even so, Don’t Worry Darling makes a better entertainment than it does a serious parable. Wilde and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, of Black Swan fame, are obsessed with overhead shots that, rather than adding pizazz, become tiresomely repetitive. (The two are especially in love with a recurring motif featuring a kaleidoscopic hallucination of dancing Busby Berkeley cuties; it makes absolutely no sense, the first time or the fifth.) There’s also a pivotal dance sequence, set during a quasi-Nazi rally, featuring an emotionless Styles doing a crazed, hand-waving, foot-shuffling thing while a big band tootles maniacally in the background. I’m very sorry to report that I have absolutely no clue what that’s about.
But the costumes are nice, featuring lots of full, swishy skirts and zesty sports shirts, served up with cartoonish Katy Keene flair. Much has been made in recent months of the reported feud between Wilde and Pugh. (Pugh had originally been scheduled to attend the film’s press conference in Venice on September 5, but a day earlier, it was announced that she would appear on the red carpet only, at the film’s premiere.) If you go to Don’t Worry Darling looking for clues to Wilde’s alleged ineptitude or insensitivity as a director, you won’t see them in Pugh’s performance: she gives Alice some depth and sparkle, and there’s never a moment you don’t root for her. Styles is cute, but a dud. Everything he does on-screen practically evaporates from one scene to the next. Oh, him, I found myself thinking every time he walked through the door from his mysterious job in the desert.
The biggest problem with Don’t Worry Darling is that it ends in the wrong place: This could have been a reasonably effective dystopian chiller, but it takes a sharp swerve into feminist triumph that feels patched-on and facile. But even if Don’t Worry Darling could be much better than it is, I’ve seen plenty of pictures made with much greater ineptitude, by fat-ego directors who are not very nice in real life—and who may even, perhaps, have slept with their lead actresses, causing discomfort or friction on the set. Those pictures, and the gossip that attends them, have been with us since the beginning of moviemaking. All that’s new is the Internet; human behavior is still retro.
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