Don’t Worry Darling (now streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video) is more famous for the fuss and kerfuffles that happened off screen than what happens on it. The movie – a thriller-mystery-drama about perfect couples in a perfect community, and everything is just TOO perfect – is notable for being Olivia Wilde’s directorial follow-up to the beloved Booksmart. Wilde originally cast Florence Pugh, Shia LaBeouf and Chris Pine alongside herself (in a supporting role), but she eventually booted LaBeouf (for reasons that neither side can agree on) for Harry Styles, who Wilde would eventually end up dating. Then rumors of on-set clashes between Wilde and Pugh bubbled to the surface. And then there was that whole spitting thing between Styles and Pine at the Venice Film Festival, a non-event which I theorize is the result of mass hypnosis. And through all this, people seemed to forget that the movie is trying to be the next Stepford Wives, which it sort of mostly almost successfully does, as I’ll detail for you here.
DON’T WORRY DARLING: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Everybody’s drunk, even the pregnant woman. The ladies are balancing trays with rocks glasses on their heads and the men are whooping them on and our protagonist couple – Alice (Pugh) and Jack Chambers (Styles) – end up doing drunken donuts in their convertible in the desert at night where there’s nothing to crash into. They live in a place or suburb (or experiment?) very ominously dubbed the Victory Project, signified by a big silver V sculpture looking all shiny in the omnipresent sunlight. It looks to be about nineteen fifty- I dunno, eight? Sure. Everything about this community is clean and neat and tidy and suspicious, suspicious like a fox. All the men pile in their gigantic hunks of American steel and zoom across the desert to work at the Victory office doing highly classified things while the women stay at home and keep the house until it’s time to go shopping, when they pile into commuter trolleys and roll to the retail district to buy groceries or a new set of pumps so they have something to wear while they vacuum.
For Alice, its toast and coffee and bacon and eggs in the morning and she kisses Jack goodbye and then she makes the bed and washes the windows and cleans the bathtub and trolleys to town and attends a ballet class with all the other women and massages the dinner beef and Jack comes home and eats her out on the dining room table while her succulent roast sits vigil from an elevated platter. They love the living shit out of each other. They’re not interested in children yet, just each other, and they enjoy a robust sex life. Their friends are all couples – her BFF is Bunny (Wilde) next door, married to Dean (Nick Kroll), and their two kids looove Miss Alice – and their social lives are rich and a little bit wild, with lots of high-end booze in expensive glassware. They go to a pool party and it’s at the house belonging to the Victory Project’s big honcho, Frank (Pine), who’s married to Shelley (Gemma Chan) and delivers a daily radio affirmation about how great it is around here, and gives speeches with egregious LENS FLARE motes floating over his head, and everything he says is calm and well-reasoned and subtextually terrifying.
But hey, who’s going to protest their highly satisfying lives here? The robot who springs a gear appears to be Alice’s friend and neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne), whose depressive discontentment just doesn’t fit into this sunny setting. She wandered into the desert once with her young son and when she returned he was gone, never to be seen again. Is she being medicated? Probably. By choice? Heh. Yeah. Right. Sometimes the women feel literal rumblings that seem tectonic perhaps, but have been dubbed “development of progressive materials.” Nothing dubious and fishy about that particular turn of phrase, nosiree! And by the way, what’s with these artsy interludes that appear to be Alice’s bad dreams? Why, after she sees what appears to be a plane crashing into the mountains, is she compelled to shuffle her pretty little self all the way across the desert to Victory HQ? What’s going on here? Did someone take a steel wool pad and some Ajax to her brain, or what?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: I think Alice needs to Get Out of The Stepford Trumatrix Show.
Performance Worth Watching: Despite the all-over-the-placeness of this screenplay, there’s no questioning Pugh’s commitment to the role, not for a second. The relative weakness of the material means the performance isn’t comparable to her exemplary work in Little Women or Midsommar, but if anything, Don’t Worry Darling proves that Pugh is more than capable of carrying an ambitious film on her shoulders.
Memorable Dialogue: Frank: “Jack, I think you may have overserved your wife.”
Sex and Skin: Pugh in a see-through-ish nightie; sex scenes sans any significant skin.
Our Take: The Victory Project was a perfect utopia – and then the asteroid hit! And that asteroid was named Alice. That’s not a spoiler; Don’t Worry Darling projects its mysterious secrets, the true nature of this place, far ahead of time. Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman (working from a story by Shane Van Dyke and Carey Van Dyke) spend a lot of time establishing the setting as a cage with golden bars just begging for someone to lead the prison break. It’s too pristine, too rigid in its adherence to mid-century ideals of “prosperity” to not be fascist. It seems inevitable that Alice will be inspired to cause a malfunction in this patriarchic-ick-ick-ick-ick-al machine in an attempt to bring it down. Isn’t that how so many movies like this inevitably progress?
But despite its predictability, contrivances, derivative themes, a scattered and choppy third act and bounty of partially realized ideas – addressing conformity, gender roles, conspiracy theories, gaslighting, toxic masculinity, sex, motherhood, modern technology, autonomy and control, etc. – the film is undeniably watchable, even engrossing at times. Wilde’s fundamentals are extraordinary: Dynamic visuals, suspenseful pacing, keenly modulated tone, an ability to direct strong performances, an eye for memorable imagery. She flirts with the type of eye-widening intensity that drills you to your seat, and is determined to be ambitious even when it threatens to sink the ship. She thankfully has Pugh to plug the holes and keep us focused on Alice, her dilemma and her heart. Without it, the movie would be an unruly mess.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Credit Don’t Worry Darling for being admirably genre-bent – and for overcoming its flaws just enough to make it recommendable. Be grateful that it inspires us to think more about what’s happening on screen than what happened off.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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