By Ann Hornaday
The advance hype for “Don’t Worry Darling” has been so incessant – from director Olivia Wilde’s location-turned-relationship with her leading man, Harry Styles, to a Kabuki-like feud with her lead actress, Florence Pugh, and something involving Chris Pine and Styles at the recent Venice Film Festival – that it is easy to forget there is an actual movie at the center of it all.
A movie that’s not a disaster, but not particularly distinguished; a movie that, in the end, will wind up being as forgettable as its own bizarre publicity.
“Don’t Worry Darling” opens at a party in the sleekly appointed living room of a 1950s tract home, where Alice Chambers (Pugh) and her husband, Jack (Styles), are entertaining their neighbours with copious amounts of booze, cigarettes and slinky dancing set to Ray Charles’s “Night Time Is the Right Time”.
The setting is the anonymous inland community of Victory, Calif., where Jack and his friends go to work each morning for a top-secret project developing “progressive materials”.
Their boss, and the man behind the real estate development, is a charismatic alpha male named Frank (Pine), whose radio sermons Alice and the rest of the Victorious home-makers listen to while they cook, clean and make perfect ice cold Martinis to serve at the ready the minute their bread-winning better halves get home.
It's all mid-century perfection, an idea Wilde drives home with zero subtlety, between the aggressive oldies soundtrack and a candy-coloured production design that leans heavily into the era's bright-and-shiny conformity.
But all is not well in this Unpleasantville, a self-contained bubble where Alice does errands on a trolley festooned with foreboding signage like "What you see here, what you do here, what you say here, let it stay here“.
She’s being haunted by strange visions of a plane crashing and Busby Berkeley dancers forming circles like the iris of an eye; at one of Frank’s parties, he delivers a motivational speech about progress, chaos and changing the world – one that's less JFK than Jim Jones.
Just what kind of looking glass Alice is in forms the mystery of “Don’t Worry Darling”, which was written by Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, who have taken obvious cues from such vintage classics as “The Stepford Wives” as well as borrowing a dash from “Seconds” here and “The Parallax View” there.
More contemporary analogues include “Severance” and “Get Out”, both of which have recalled Rod Serling in being both surpassingly weird and on point.
“Don’t Worry Darling” teases provocative ideas about gender roles and expectations but never achieves Serling’s heights of suspense and social commentary.
Meanwhile, Wilde’s direction manages to be simultaneously overheated and pedestrian, resorting to blunt-force literalism in moments that call for Hitchcockian finesse.
Wilde was going to cast herself as Alice; instead she plays Bunny, a liquored-up true believer with a feline gaze and glibly knowing streak.
(Kate Berlant does her best to spike the proceedings with spontaneous humour as the very pregnant Peg.)
Luckily, Wilde saw the horror movie “Midsommar” and decided to use Pugh for a role in which, by dint of natural charisma and vanity-free naturalism, she manages to turn a flawed and drably tedious movie into something remotely watchable.
(For his part, Styles is unimpressive but inoffensive, even when Wilde has him perform a puppetlike dance for no discernible reason.)
There turns out to be a doozy of a twist in “Don’t Worry Darling” that feels both facile and like a wasted opportunity.
There might have been some good ideas in here about ambition and ambivalence, desire and self-deception.
But they turn out to be as fleeting as a tumbleweed blowing through suburbia by a Santa Ana wind.