The waves of off-screen drama and gossip surrounding “Don’t Worry Darling” have put director Olivia Wilde’s second film in a sticky spot, unable to justify the hype (that’s OK at best) but probably well-advised. to take advantage of it. Florence Pugh makes the strongest case for seeing the movie, but given her claim, if you miss this one, don’t worry.
The dark and mysterious concept represents a marked departure from Wilde’s impressive debut with “Booksmart,” a short coming-of-age flick that hit all the right notes. Having had the chance to progress through the classroom, the actor-turned-director has assembled a top-notch cast, but in a story that teases the buildup a little too long and doesn’t pay it off very well; indeed, the ending becomes what the film’s driving force is about striving to avoid – namely chaos.
Due to a spiritual debt to “The Stepford Wives” with its carefully nurtured suburban image, there are also many more recent points of comparison, such as the George Clooney-directed “Suburbicon.” There’s even a dollop of “Edward Scissorhands” in the pastel vision of a perfect cul-de-sac where men walk to work in single file while their wives dutifully wave goodbye.
Alice (Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles) seem to be living the dream, partying with her colleagues in the 1950s-style planned community where they all live. The two are incredibly hot for each other, almost sickening to hear Alice Bunny’s pal (played by Wilde) say so.
On closer inspection, however, it all seems a little too perfect, and therefore suspicious, starting with the fact that no one will explain exactly what they do while working for something called the Victory Project. There’s also a cult devotion to the boss, Frank (Chris Pine, as Pugh, a cut above the material), who compels his managers to enthusiastically accept that they’re “changing the world.”
If the goal is some kind of joyful conformity, it gives way to what feels like gaslighting when Alice begins to sense something is wrong, fueled by strange dreams, surreal images and the behavior of ‘a neighbour.
Based on a script credited to Shane and Carey Van Dyke (Dick Van Dyke’s grandsons) with Katie Silberman of “Booksmart”, “Don’t Worry Darling” falls into the creative trap of following the pattern of an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” just without the kind of reveal that would elevate it to this series’ most memorable level. While the film has something to say about gender politics and misogyny, it’s not articulated well enough to distinguish itself from a number of other films.
Given this, the question posed by The New York Times regarding the off-screen relationship controversy – “Will Spiral Advertising Hurt ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ at the Box Office?” – just seems upside down; rather, the real question is whether this curiosity, including Zapruder’s cinematic analysis of the stars at the Venice Film Festival premiere, can spur interest in an otherwise indescribable film? (The film is published by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Practically speaking, despite the heat surrounding Styles as he steps up his acting career, the main draw should be Pugh, whose rising profile – with an Oscar nomination for ‘Little Women’, ‘Black Widow’ and the upcoming “Dune” – will see her in another film, “Wonder”, in November.
After Wilde’s impressive debut, one invariably waits to see if a filmmaker can achieve another success. By that measure, “Don’t Worry Darling” feels more like a modest setback than a big disappointment, but in the end, it’s hard to call this project a victory.
“Don’t Worry Darling” hits US theaters on September 23. It is rated R. The film is distributed by Warner Bros. Studios, which like CNN is part of Warner Bros. Discovery.