Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” is a movie that, in recent weeks, has been besieged and consumed by offscreen dramas, none of which I’ll recount here, except to note that when a film’s lead actress seems actively reluctant to publicize the film in question, that’s a sign of some serious discord. Yet it would be hugely unfair to allow this tempest in a teapot of gossipy turmoil to influence one’s feelings about the movie. If you want to talk about problems related to “Don’t Worry Darling,” you need look no further than at what’s onscreen.
The film, written by Katie Silberman, with the brilliant production design of Katie Byron, is a kind of candy-colored “Stepford Wives” in the Twilight Zone meets “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the age of torn-at-the-seams democracy. In theory, this should add up to a juicy watch. Wilde, whose first feature was the witty and vivacious 2019 girls-on-a-bender comedy “Booksmart” (this is her second film), is a gifted director who knows how to set a mood. In “Don’t Worry Darling,” she does that to the max, and for a while you get caught up in it (or, at least, I did). Between the pop ambition, the tasty dream visuals, and the presence of Harry Styles in his first lead role, “Don’t Worry Darling” should have no trouble finding an audience. But the movie takes you on a ride that gets progressively less scintillating as it goes along.
As it opens, we hear the sexy bop of Ray Charles’ 1958 version of “Night Time Is the Right Time,” and we’re plunged into what looks like a cocktail party from the “Mad Men” era, except that everyone is so loud and garish and lewd and hyped that you wonder if the Gibson martinis are spiked with Ecstasy. This is not what cocktail parties were like back then. But that’s because this is not back then. It is now.
We’re in a strange planned community somewhere in a palm-tree desert, where every home is the exact same white flat cookie-cutter model (they look like something Frank Lloyd Wright would have designed for IKEA). Each morning, the men get into their big curvy postwar cars, which are in different lollipop shades, and exit their suburban cul-de-sac in a choreographed line. They’re headed for another day’s work on the Victory Project, a research operation so top secret they’re not even allowed to talk about it with their wives. The standard corporate line is that they’re working on “the development of progressive materials,” which makes it sound like they’re inventing nuclear weapons or something every bit as dark and monumental. (Every so often, an explosive underground hum will shake and rattle those mid-century-modern living rooms.)
And the women? They stay home, chatting and backbiting, cleaning house, looking after the kids, hanging out at the pool, preparing tuna salad and deviled eggs, taking ballet classes, and greeting their husbands with a drink at the door. You may survey it all and think: What fresh hell is this? But “Don’t Worry Darling” hasn’t even gotten to the sinister part yet. The name of this surreal retro subdivision is Victory, and the main thing everyone talks about is how wonderful it is. How lucky they are to be there, and how happy they are to have escaped the life they had before.
Our entry point into the Victory lifestyle is a childless couple who look singularly sexy, appealing, and in love: Jack, played by Styles with a wholesome cunning that marks him as a natural screen actor, and Alice, played by Florence Pugh, who holds down the center of the movie with a spark of eagerness that melts into a wary detective’s gaze. These two can hardly keep their hands off each other (early on, she clatters her dinner roast onto the floor, so that Harry’s Jack can go down on her — a scene that should sell $5 million worth of opening-weekend tickets right there), and there’s an affection to their interplay. But is it real? Is anything we’re seeing real?
The prefab community of Victory is run by a man named Frank, who also created it, and as played by Chris Pine he has the personality of a New Age cult leader — not a proto guru from the ’50s but one of those smiling fascists of self-actualization, the kind who can kill you with their sensitive positivity. And, of course, the reason for that is that they’re never sincere. They’re trying to get something out of you. They’re “open” about everything but their own agenda. Pine gives a delectable performance, but as soon as Alice and Jack join the other residents for a party at Frank’s oversize house, it’s clear something deeply troublesome is at play.
The characters in “Don’t Worry Darling” have a cult leader because they are, in essence, a cult: contempo folks who’ve formed a community in which they pretend to live like middle-class ’50s drones, and agree never to question anything and to do just what they’re told. Asking questions about what’s really going on, the way Alice starts to, is going to get you in trouble. If the film has a resonance, and bits and pieces of it do, it’s that we’re living in a world today that seems increasingly assembled out of cult psychology: the de facto cult leaders (like Trump), the tribal mindsets that dictate a rigid moral absolutism, the retro fetishization of 1950s values as a prime ideal.
Alice is gripped by shock-cut hallucinations that are like Busby Berkeley numbers that turn into evil dreams. And things start to happen around her. She pays special attention when Margaret (KiKi Layne), the only Black woman in Victory, stands at the edge of Frank’s pool party, aghast and distraught, and asks, “Why are we here?” Alone on a trolley car, Alice watches a propeller plane crash in the desert and runs out to see what happened, going over to the location no woman is supposed to get near: the Victory Project headquarters, which sits atop a dirt mountain like a Bond villain’s lair in the shape of a giant stripped golf ball. She returns wanting to tell everyone what she’s discovered, but she’s treated like Katharine Ross in “The Stepford Wives” or Mia Farrow’s Rosemary— like someone who hasn’t turned into a pod person yet. She’s also a little like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show”: She just woke up to the fact that she’s living in a hall of mirrors, and therefore she needs to be silenced. The sinister nerd Dr. Collins (Timothy Simons) is sent over to drug her up. Her beloved Jack suddenly starts acting like he’s…one of them.
Of course, when those other movies came out (even “The Stepford Wives,” which was never more than an amusing piece of claptrap), the world was a little less used to this kind of conspiratorial socio thriller. The early scenes of “Don’t Worry Darling” are the film’s best, but even there it’s hard not to notice the top-heaviness with which the movie telegraphs its own darkness. (It’s not like we watch Chris Pine’s speech and think, “What a good dude!”) To really work, the film needed to reel us in slowly, to be insidious and surprising in the way that “Get Out” was. Instead, it’s ominous in an obvious way.
But it does have a big twist, which I will, of course, not reveal. I’ll just say that it’s a blend of “Squid Game” and Shyamalan, that it wants to spin your head but may leave you scratching it, and that it’s hooked to Harry Styles being cast, for one section, as a runty unattractive geek, which (surprise) is not exactly convincing. What is convincing is how easily Styles sheds his pop-star flamboyance, even as he retains his British accent and takes over one party scene by dancing as if he were in a ’40s musical. There’s actually something quite old-fashioned about Styles. With his popping eyes, floppy shock of hair, and saturnine suaveness, he recalls the young Frank Sinatra as an actor. It’s too early to tell where he’s going in movies, but if he wants to he could have a real run in them.
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