By now, the question isn’t whether you’ve heard of Don’t Worry Darling, Olivia Wilde’s social-thriller-cum-thirst-valentine — it’s what you’ve heard about it. High-profile hook-ups, the humiliating serving of papers during public appearances, leaked videos, cross-media sniping, several pints’ worth of alleged bad blood, the ghosting of press conferences, Spitgate, etc. Every film production is dysfunctional in its own way. This movie stands head and subzero-temp-cold shoulders above its peers in terms of salacious scuttlebutt, however. Wilde has said she set out to make “The Feminist Mystique on acid.” Her sophomore effort’s legacy may end up being a 21st century Cleopatra, replaying the infamous Liz ‘n’ Dick lollapalooza that accompanied the 1963 epic run amuck.
We do not come to bury this Caesar salad of retro-glam decor, half-baked notions of patriarchal happiness-is-slavery wish fulfillment and Tales From the Crypt storytelling given the cocktail-happy-hour-filter treatment on gossip alone. But we’re not here to praise it either, and no one could be blamed for focusing more on the behind-the-scenes drama and a gloriously off-the-rails PR campaign than what’s actually up on the screen. (Which you’ll have the chance to see when the film hits theaters on September 23rd.) Despite how sumptuous and stylish — and Styles-ish — as all of it is, Don’t Worry Darling plays like a bad Op-Ed piece that wants you to believe its good intentions are more significant and righteous than they actually are. It’s nowhere near The Feminine Mystique on acid, though judges might accept “Lean In after a few too many Lime-a-Ritas” as a less aspirational, more accurate description. Rarely has high-concept genre commentary been so gorgeous yet so barely coherent.
And it is undeniably gorgeous, presenting a ring-a-ding 1950s dream world that’s hard not be beguiled by thanks to Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, Katie Byron’s production design and Arianne Phillips’ costume design. You can’t say that it doesn’t give you an Eisenhower-era Eden that’s positively mouth-watering — so picture-perfect, in fact, that you might be able to forget how repressive everything might be beneath the shiny, impeccably polished surface. At night, the citizens of the quaint community of Victory throw raucous, drunken shindigs that are always one lampshade-hat away from going full suburban bacchanalia. In the morning, the husbands kiss their wives goodbye and drive their vintage gas guzzlers out of this ticky-tacky utopia and through the desert toward “headquarters,” where everyone works on “the Victory Project.”
No one knows what this mysterious project is that occupies the gents’ waking hours; when asked, they reply they’re in “the development of progressive materials business” and leave it at that. Besides, why should the womenfolk worry about what their husbands do or don’t do during the day when there’s housework to be done, modern dance classes to attend, pools to lounge by, so many pretty dresses to buy? For Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh), this is the glamorous life in all of its stand-by-your-man glory. At the end of the day, she’ll greet her husband, Jack (Harry Styles) at the door and if she’s lucky, somewhere between the last sip of his martini and the first bite of her pot roast, he’ll ravage her on the dinner table. Imagine an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show if Rob Petrie came home, tripped over the sofa and then immediately went down on Laura. You’re not far off the mark. (The fact that two of the sitcom star’s grandchildren, Carey and Shane Van Dyke, are credited as co-writers only ups the irony factor.)
Still, something begins to feel off to Alice in this modernist wonderland. It isn’t so much that the figure at the center of their community — a dapper man named Jack, played by Chris Pine as the epitome of the suavity of evil — is giving off major cult-leader vibes. It’s more that she’s suddenly seeing a lot of fraying on the edges of it all. She’s been having odd flashbacks involving water and rows of raccoon-eyed dancers doing Busby Berkeley numbers. She keeps humming a tune yet can’t quite place what it is and where she first heard it. While doing the windows one day, Alice gets the sensation that these squeaky clean glass panes are closing in on her. (Metaphor alert!) Wrapping up food with Saran wrap, she’s compelled to take the miracle product designed to keep your leftovers fresh and completely covers her head, nearly suffocating herself. (Even bigger metaphor alert!!!) All of her friends, from the eternally preggers Peg (Kate Berlant) to her next-door neighbor Bunny (Wilde), are worried about her. Except for Margaret (KiKi Layne), who’s too busy melting down herself and ends up going from a Chicken Little yelling about the sky falling in this paradise to a casualty.
(About Margaret: A case could be made that an African-American character might naturally be able to see what’s really going on behind the polite society of a 1950s township with more clarity than her white counterparts. And an even stronger case could be made that casting one of the few Black actors in your ensemble in such a barely sketched out, completely sacrificial role isn’t exactly a great look. Let’s just say this might have been thought through a little better.)
Without saying too much about where Don’t Worry Darling is headed, things are definitely not what they seem, and the feeling that you’re in the middle of Black Mirror episode set in some alternate version of, say, Branson, Missouri begins to overwhelm you even more than the midcentury mood-board decor porn. You can sense what Wilde and her trio of scribes, which also includes Booksmart‘s writer-producer Katie Silberman, are going for here: the kind of smart, penetrating horror movie that wants to swim in the same social-thriller waters as Get Out.
Yet there’s both too much and not enough happening in their tale of throwback Americana as a female empowerment parable and a fuck you to the patriarchy. The former in particular feels wildly unfocused — not in its rage, its paranoia or its obvious targets, but in how its attack keeps getting undermined by stylish touches for their own sake (those creepy musical-number asides almost feel like they were envisioned before the story and were reverse-engineered into the movie) and some truly wonky third-act turns. Loose ends are left untied, and dead ends lurk around narrative corners. It’s clear that a viewer’s intoxication with this classic environment is meant to be a trap, yet you can also feel how much the creators are getting off on their eternal-cocktail-hour fantasy; the only people who are more enamored of this world than the toxic males benefiting from it are the filmmakers. By the time Darling‘s revelations are supposed to double as a call to revolution, you’re left with the sense that you’ve just witnessed the most well-designed, aesthetically pleasing angry tweet ever penned.
Speaking of “getting off”: You want to know about Harry Styles, don’t you? Whether the pop star is a better-than-decent actor is still a riddle for the Sphinx by the time the credits role (and will likely be answered when his next project, the British love-triangle drama My Policeman, gets released later this year). His dream spouse with the magic tongue and a secret isn’t given much to do besides be handsome, mildly menacing or some combo of the two; there’s a reason this particular hunk is too good to be true, which doesn’t excuse how threadbare the character feels. Still, the camera loves him even if the script doesn’t, though the fact that you feel like you’re watching a young Laurence Harvey waltz around in fashionable period duds doesn’t quite make up for the fact that something like chemistry between the leads is M.I.A. There are too many moments when you feel like Pugh, doing her usual stellar, steely-meets-vulnerable protagonist act, isn’t trying to escape a waking nightmare so much as a movie that’s been forcibly relocated to Harry’s House.
The difference between told something is super-hot versus actual heat is huge, of course, in the same way that using horror in a subversive, socially conscious way isn’t the same as being clumsily beaten about the head with ideas in an eye-candy cri de coeur with a suspenseful soundtrack. Don’t Worry Darling is so muddled in its aims and means, such a missed opportunity at such a crucial moment, that you can’t help but mourn even when you’re being dazzled. Put it this way: This isn’t a deathblow for anyone involved. But it may be time for them to start worrying.