If you have heard anything lately about Olivia Wilde’s sophomore feature film (after 2019’s coming-of-age comedy Booksmart), chances are it’s the on- and off-set drama surrounding the filmmaker and her cast, including the uber-talented Florence Pugh and the…well, he sure is pretty…Harry Styles. That palace intrigue may be enough to convince you to see Don’t Worry Darling, just to find out for yourself what all the fuss is about. But allow me to tell you, as is my role here, that all that fuss is for naught. The film, based on a story credited to Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, with a final script from Katie Silberman (who also wrote Booksmart), is a big nothing burger, a mystery wrapped up in a relationship drama that spends more time spinning its own wheels in the confusion and turmoil we witness than ever actually having anything to say about the world it creates and seems to be commenting on.
Pugh is Alice Chambers, a dutiful and doting wife to Jack (Styles), who sets off for work every day to somewhere just outside their small idyllic town of Victory, set in a valley in California’s arid desert. It’s clearly mid-century Americana we’re going for here, with tea-length dresses and skinny ties, extra-large cars with extra-large fins and the suburban cul-de-sac where the Chamberses live lined with manicured lawns. Alice’s best friend is Bunny (Wilde), who’s married to Jack’s best friend Dean (Nick Kroll), and the whole community is overseen by an enigmatic couple the residents practically worship, Frank (Chris Pine) and Shelley (Gemma Chan). This is a city filled with beautiful people living in beautiful homes conducting beautiful day-to-day lives, and Frank and Shelley are the most beautiful among them.
Alice and the other wives don’t exactly know what it is their husbands do all day, but they know (or at least believe) it’s important, and they take their responsibilities of tending to home, children and their social lives quite seriously. When Jack and Alice, along with other well-performing employees, are invited to Frank and Shelley’s house for a cookout, it’s as if they’ve really arrived. But all is not right in Victory, as Margaret (KiKi Layne), one of the wives in the community, seems a bit off, asking questions she shouldn’t and making everyone around her uncomfortable.
It’s the first glimpse we get of where Don’t Worry Darling is headed, and at least as it begins, there’s reason to be hopeful that the mystery at the heart of the film might be very troubling indeed. Alice is our proxy into the unraveling of the community’s secrets, as she finds herself far outside the community’s boundaries one sweltering day and witnesses a gruesome moment in Margaret’s life another. Soon she’s the one asking the tough questions, and a dinner party she and Jack host with Frank, Shelley, Bunny, Dean and others quickly deteriorates, as the rest of the film does into an epic exercise in gaslighting.
Wilde proves herself a competent enough director (unless you believe some of the gossip, I suppose), infusing the film with an unmistakable sense of place and perspective. From a ladies day lounging by the community pool to a company dinner featuring a burlesque show and some eerily cult-like demonstrations, the film certainly succeeds at world building, drawing its audience into this Stepford-like pseudo-paradise. What Wilde is less successful at is casting, as no one in this ensemble can hold a candle to what Pugh (and perhaps Pine) are doing on screen, least of all Styles, whose performance is as charismatic as a piece of cardboard. Even Wilde herself seems in over her head in her character’s most dramatic scene, turning on a dime and delivering some unexpected news to Alice that ends up being not quite as shocking as she thinks it is.
And therein lies the biggest problem for Don’t Worry Darling, its ultimate predictability. The film contains a third-act twist that is worth protecting yourself from if you do plan to see the film, but if it doesn’t occur to you fairly early on what exactly is happening here, you haven’t been paying close enough attention. Knowing what’s coming, Wilde and Silberman could have found ways to have a bit more cat-and-mouse fun with their audience; instead, the script seems so intent on telling us that something bad is happening, it never quite gets around to remembering to make us care what that is. More than once, Pugh is emoting and spiraling through her characters revelations without anywhere to go with them; that, seemingly, is the whole point of the scene, just watching Pugh process this new information.
Which, OK. There are worse ways to spend one’s time than enjoying another solid performance from Pugh. There are also better ways to spend one’s time than with Don’t Worry Darling.
The film is now playing in select theaters.
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