Just as a bonsai tree is somewhat overshadowed by a giant sequoia, the film Don’t Worry Darling comes to us somewhat overshadowed by Don’t Worry Darling, the behind-the-scenes gossip generator. That’s a shame because a movie should be judged on its merits, not its memes. Directed by Olivia Wilde, the film has considerable visual flair, and at its core it imaginatively takes into account a troubling cultural trend that I won’t discuss as it’s a revelation in the third act.
Not that I would recommend Don’t Worry Darling. Written by Katie Silberman from a story by brothers Carey and Shane Van Dyke, it suffers from a major structural problem, namely that in its endlessly padded middle section it shyly refuses to get to the point until it exhausts the audience’s patience, and then a late explanation sprints through that deserves closer consideration.
“Don’t Worry Darling” stars the endlessly awe-inspiring Florence Pugh, who stands out in every way as one of a bevy of immaculately dressed housewives living in an idyllic but strange desert community. The women appear hyper-feminine, or perhaps just averagely feminine for the time, which is the post-war years, judging by the cars and clothes. Each morning, while the ladies in their pretty dresses wave goodbye, their skinny tie-wearing husbands go off to work on a secret venture that has echoes of the Manhattan Project, except it’s called the Victory Project. The happy young couples spend their evenings enjoying huge steaks, tempting cocktails and extensive lovemaking. life is perfect
Too perfect, in a surreal Twilight Zone way. Katie Byron’s spectacularly detailed 1950s production design and Matthew Libatique’s colorful cinematography immediately raise suspicions that the film is satire, fantasy, or a combination of both, like The Truman Show or Pleasantville. The women are so elegant, sassy, and giddy at being housewives that they might as well be residents of a truly prime place like Stepford, Connecticut.
Olivia Wilde and Nick Kroll
Photo: Warner Bros.
Ms. Pugh, who is on screen pretty much all the time, puts her character Alice through a variety of emotions as she begins to share the concerns of another housewife, Margaret (KiKi Layne), who warns that things are not as they seem. When Margaret disappears and Alice strays into an unauthorized area while witnessing what she believes to be a plane crash, she panics. This earns her a visit from a sinister doctor (Timothy Simons), who promises that all her problems will go away once she starts taking the right medication. Neighbors like her friend Bunny (played by Ms. Wilde) tell her her worries are unfounded. And her downright dashing husband Jack (Harry Styles) comforts her, reminding her that everyone should have the honor of helping carry out the grand plans of the charismatic leader of the Victory Project, Frank (Chris Pine). In Alice’s eyes, however, the beloved Frank gradually begins to appear like a deceitful cult leader.
Looking gorgeous in her mid-century clothes and makeup, Ms. Pugh proves once again that she’s one of the most exciting actresses of her generation, and while Mr. Styles isn’t as impressive in his less demanding role, he shows it Potential to follow Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley’s journey from pop idol to real movie star.
Photo: Warner Bros.
It’s Ms. Wilde whose self-indulgence drags the film down. Remember how tight those Twilight Zone episodes were? Most were around 24 minutes. In “Don’t Worry Darling,” the middle section lasts about three times as long because Ms. Wilde can’t stop throwing in scene after scene, making only the slightest variations on the same plot point.
The overall effect is annoying. Ms. Wilde’s debut behind the camera, the teen comedy Booksmart three years ago, was funny but lacked in directorial vision. This time Ms. Wilde is clearly bent on changing perceptions and makes an ambitious attempt to jump into the ranks of the authors with important themes and fantastical elements churning in the subconscious and attempting to create a spectacular visual map of Alice’s inner being create conflict. But the imagery, like an eerie close-up of an eyeball and interludes from a Busby Berkeley-esque geometric group dance, tries too hard to impress and grows stale with repetition.
Photo: Warner Bros.
I definitely prefer to watch an ambitious film than an undemanding one. But Frau Wilde’s film needs more discipline and fewer hallucinations. As it stands, Don’t Worry Darling is bound to fall into the same mental category as The Stepford Wives, a terrifying film that boils down to a punch line.
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