While not as bad as gossip columns would have you believe, Olivia’s Wilde’s feminist nightmare Don’t Worry Darling is aesthetically pleasing, but not much else.
Don’t Worry Darling, director Olivia Wilde’s latest film, is neither a masterpiece nor a disaster. Based on the amount of behind the scenes drama that has surrounded the entire production filming to promotion, this review will surely come as a disappointment to some. But if not for the gossip about the filming of the movie and the celebrities involved, this deeply forgettable film would probably fade from the public eye in no time at all.
Darling’s screenplay, by Katie Silberman (Booksmart) and Dick Van Dyke’s grandsons Carey and Shane Van Dyke, is meant to explore women’s experiences in patriarchal relationships, but it barely dips below the surface, offering nothing novel in terms of feminist thought. Instead of overstuffed, this script feels positively understuffed, stretching a single idea into the length of a feature film. It’s a cliché to say it, but this really does feel like a first draft that somehow got shot.
Florence Pugh plays Alice (get it??), a housewife in an idyllic mid-century marriage with her husband, Jack (Harry Styles) in a remote desert community called the Victory Project. Recalling planned communities of post-WWII America, including Walt Disney’s original vision for an EPCOT that actually housed residents, the Victory Project is a sanitary utopia where women stay home keeping house and men go to work making “progressive materials” under their all-seeing boss, Frank (Chris Pine). Alice fills her days cleaning, cooking, and having sex with her husband, until strange behavior from her neighbor, another housewife named Margaret (the impeccable Kiki Layne of If Beale Street Could Talk), makes her question the limitations of her small world.
If you’ve seen any promotional material at all for the film, you more or less know what to expect of what comes next. It was almost shocking to see how many twists were simply given away in trailers and ad spots. Perhaps the promotional team had no confidence in the film itself. Indeed, for all of Wilde’s sound bites about Darling digging into female pleasure, the movie mostly traffics in women’s pain. Yes, there are sex scenes that center around the female orgasm, but many of them are meant to communicate fear, paranoia, and disorientation. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but the story has little insight into anything beyond what a Gender Studies 101 class could impart.
That being said, Pugh is one of the most exciting young actresses working today, and she has never delivered a bad performance. There’s an old saying that a good cryer does not a good actor make, but Pugh is both, and she has plenty of chances to showcase her chops as the bewildered but determined Alice. Pine makes a winsome yet formidable foe for her, though Gemma Chan has little to offer in her role as Shelley, his character’s wife, beyond her stunning looks. The rest of the supporting cast acquit themselves well. Timothy Simons of Veep is remarkably menacing as the town’s taciturn doctor. Comedians Kate Berlant and Nick Kroll are dryly funny in their respective roles. Wilde herself has notable screen chemistry with Pugh in her role as Alice’s best friend, Bunny, which is amusing considering the rumors surrounding their on-set rapport.
There is, unfortunately, one notable exception. Styles is glaringly unnatural and ill at ease in his role as Jack, which is a big problem, since he’s second-billed. He’s passable enough in the intimate moments with Pugh, as well as dancing or fist-fighting, but as soon as he opens his mouth to speak, it’s all over. Even though Jack is mean to be British— at least, so it would seem— Styles slips in and out of a bizarre accent that sounds more Australian that anything. It feels almost unfair to set him against Pugh, who’s in top form as always. He visibly flounders during the emotional moments and seems tense and self-conscious during the ones where he should be as charismatic as he is onstage. This reviewer wouldn’t have cast Shia LaBeouf, but Styles wasn’t a right fit for the part either.
On the other hand, Layne’s uniquely arresting performance as Margaret, the wife whose breakdown can no longer be easily concealed from the public eye, opens up a whole new can of worms. Don’t Worry Darling is a movie that heavily features groups of (mostly) white cishet men literally rallying together and shouting about how “the world belongs to them.” The entire driving force behind The Victory Project is the desire the create a closed-off world free from the conflict of so-called social justice issues. Layne is the only Black actor with any lines at all— maybe the only Black actor in the film. When her character breaks the arbitrary rules put in place by Frank and the other husbands, she is harshly punished by having her child, a young Black boy, taken away from her.
It feels deeply bizarre and confusing that the movie includes this plot beat, which painfully echoes the real-life experiences of women of color in America, without ever once addressing or even mentioning race. The only other notable character of color is Berlant’s husband, played by Asif Ali. When he and Berlant’s characters complain about being left out of social functions, it’s not immediately clear whether they’re being excluded on the basis of ethnicity. Colorblind casting is often a valid and even exciting choice, but in a story that’s entirely built people being forced to slot into their societal roles, failing to address racism and prejudice feelings seems like a glaring oversight.
[T]he story has little insight into anything beyond what a Gender Studies 101 class could impart.
Maybe expanding beyond a White Feminist perspective could have pushed this story into interesting territory, but it never quite gets there. There are some decent twists, but each of them is telegraphed obviously about five scenes in advance. Yet again, it appears that no one involved in the making of Don’t Worry Darling had any conviction that its merits could speak for themselves. Funnily enough, despite the gossip about her supposed lack of onset involvement, the direction by Wilde, and cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, A Star is Born), are often the only elements giving the thin script any drive at all. It’s actually easy to imagine enjoying the movie more on mute, because there are some striking visuals involving mirrors and duplicated images. There are some effective beats involving suffocation and smothering as a metaphor for Alice’s predicament, but they’re just as often undercut by a recurring CGI jump scare that feels goofy and out of place.
In the end, the fantasy 1960s production design by Katie Byron (@ZOLA) and costume design by Arianne Phillips (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, A Single Man) are probably the best reasons to recommend the movie outside of Pugh and Pine’s performances. Their work looks beautiful; let’s just say this movie would have absolutely popped off during the golden age of the Tumblr .gif post. There are some truly gorgeous shots, mostly involving old-timey cars racing through the desert. However, if you’ve seen a single promotional video for this movie, again, you’ve already seen most of what Darling has to offer.
Then the third act hits, and twists pile up on top of each other one after the other, and the film truly enters “no plot, just vibes” territory. When Alice’s story comes to an abrupt end after a cascade of misdirections, it almost feels like an act of desperation on the screenwriters’ part. Audience members left this reviewer’s screening musing about various “theories,” but it doesn’t seem like the people who actually crafted this script knew exactly what was going on. Letting the plot continue for even a single moment longer would have led to the whole house of cards falling down on top of Pugh and Styles, and their odd, mismatched abilities.
If you’re looking for a chic new desktop background, Don’t Worry Darling is the film for you. But if you’re looking for any actual appreciation of complicated gender dynamics, the SparkNotes version of The Feminine Mystique, or a particularly sassy Twitter thread, probably has more to offer.
Don’t Worry Darling is now playing in theaters.