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Review: Don’t Worry Darling

September 23, 2022

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Neither good nor bad enough to fully justify its widely publicized behind the scenes drama, Olivia Wilde’s overly ambitious second feature Don’t Worry Darling is instead a thoroughly mediocre and undercooked effort that tries to be a lot of things, but doesn’t really do any of them particularly well.

Florence Pugh stars in the film as Alice, a young woman who is living in a seemingly utopian 1950s suburban community with her husband Jack Chambers (Harry Styles). It’s a community where, almost like clockwork, the men all drive to work in the morning to go to their secretive jobs, while the wives stay at home to cook and clean and look after the kids.

They are part of something called the Victory Project, a housing development in the middle of the desert run by a man named Frank (Chris Pine), a shadowy figure whom all the men work for and desperately try to impress. But everything is not as it seems. While many residents, like Alice’s friend and neighbour Bunny (Wilde, in a campy supporting role) seem perfectly happy fulfilling the stereotypical gender roles, Alice starts to feel a discontent that leads to her asking questions about the true nature of her idyllic world.

Before I go any further, it’s worth noting that Pugh is very good here. She acts her ass off (for lack of a better phrase) as she tries to hold up the entire movie around her. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is also quite solid, capturing the pastel colours of this 1950s suburbia (a fine feat of production design), with his camera swirling above for bird’s eye view shots. But the best efforts of Pugh and Libatique can’t fully save the film from sort of crumbling apart as it goes along.

Not to dump on Styles or anything – I do like him as a performer and he is okay in a few scenes – but he also doesn’t really have the range yet to pull off the nuances of this character, and his acting often feels amateurish. There are moments (such as a scene when he attempts to prepare dinner by hammering a bowl of uncooked potatoes with a whisky bottle) where his performance just doesn’t land. I don’t really know if he would have been given this role had he not already been famous. The other issue is that it still feels like we are supposed to like Styles, when his character requires someone who can grapple with the underlying darkness.

Which brings us to the behind the scenes drama. Shia LaBeouf was originally cast as Jack, but dropped out. Wilde then claimed she fired him due to his behaviour, which was put to rest when LaBeouf released a video message of her begging him to come back, and condescending Pugh (“Miss Flo”). Wilde, who was married to Jason Sudeikis at the time, also infamously had an on-set affair with Styles, which drew the ire of Pugh, who had a falling out with the director. This was evidenced by the dynamics at the Venice Film Festival. Now how frustrating it must be for Wilde that Pugh, who basically recused herself from the publicity tour, has taken the lion’s share of praise for her film.

The trouble is that Wilde, whose only previous film was the enjoyable if overpraised 2019 comedy Booksmart, seems to think she is making a cross between The Stepford Wives, A Clockwork Orange, Blue Velvet, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Get Out and Us (both Jordan Peele movies feel like pretty big influences), and simply isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to really pull it off. Even as a pastiche of cinematic references, this might have worked better if it had been guided by more confident hands, but the film’s trendy, TikTok-level politics end up feeling plasticy and surface deep.

Yes, there was darkness hidden behind the seemingly perfect facade of 1950s suburbia, but this is hardly a new idea, and the film is never as deep as it seems to think it is in addressing it. The screenplay by Booksmart scribe Katie Silberman (who overhauled a spec script by Carey and Shane Van Dyke that made the 2019 Black List) introduces some vaguely interesting ideas, but doesn’t do the adequate follow up work to really address them, and ultimately leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions in the last act. And not in an intriguing way, mind you, but in a frustrating way that makes the film feel almost wholly underdeveloped and not fully fleshed out.

The other problem is that the story requires it to go some very dark places, but Don’t Worry Darling still feels like it is trying to be a piece of glossy, easily digestible entertainment. An early moment when Alice starts to notice something is off is when she cracks an egg in her hand and realizes it is just an empty shell. This serves as a pretty nifty metaphor for the film itself; an empty vessel that looks smooth and perfect on the outside, but with none of the required ingredients on the inside.

Why, then, if the reach of Don’t Worry Darling so clearly supersedes its grasp, am I not completely writing off the film? It’s simply because I was rarely bored during it. For all of the story problems and messiness, Pugh does keep us watching, and there is a “fascinating misfire” feel to the entire thing that has been fuelled by the gossip of what transpired on-set. I just wish there was more beneath the surface of a story that demands more depth that what it has been given. But see it if you’re curious what all of the fuss is about.

Don’t Worry Darling is now playing exclusively in theatres.

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