Don’t Worry Darling fails to deliver even as much intrigue as its publicity tour, its shallow, ridiculous script resulting in a film that lands with a dire thud.
It’s hard to recall a time in recent memory when a troubled production so thoroughly overshadowed its film as it has Don’t Worry Darling. Spend enough time following the press tour for Olivia Wilde’s second feature, and you’ll roll out the other end like Fox Mulder: tired, bleary-eyed, and adamant that the truth — in this case, who fired who, who dated who when, and who’s lying about what now — is out there, just perpetually out of grasp — just a veritable cascade of twists and turns leading up to the passive-aggressive press conference and red carpet at the Venice Film Festival. It’s far less of a challenge to wrap your mind around the tepid mystery central to this Stepford Wives-esque psychological thriller; after all, even its trailer plays like reheated leftovers. So much attention has been heaped on Harry Styles’ performance, or lack thereof, that the awful spec script written by Shane & Carey Van Dyke and reworked here by Wilde’s writing partner Katie Silberman, has somehow completely escaped scrutiny. Silberman found and polished off a decade-old Black List screenplay for Wilde’s amiable, heart-on-sleeve debut Booksmart, and so returned to the source to drudge up this monstrosity from Dick Van Dyke’s grandsons. The biggest project from the two brothers thus far has been the small-budget horror Chernobyl Diaries, but far more illuminating are Shane Van Dyke’s writing credits on Asylum knock-off films like Transmorphers 2: Fall of Man. This context makes perfect sense given that Wilde, with Silberman’s help, has taken this D-level material, slapped on a coat of paint and star power, and bumped it up two whole letter grades, delivering a picture best classed as a B24 film.
Things aren’t all that bleak at the kick-off, which finds our cast of characters playing a rowdy drinking game, a Ray Charles record crooning from a turntable, and the camera weaving and ducking around like a woozy partygoer. This opening could even be easily mistaken for a bit of quarantined revelry a la The Tsugua Diaries. Inspired fragments like this call back to the free-flowing energy of Booksmart, and serve as vital reminders for how actress-turned-director Wilde — whose indulgent self-casting here borders on aggravating — accumulated so much buzz and goodwill in the first place. The time period is ambiguous at first, but we soon find out the setting is a mysterious desert cul-de-sac in the 1950s, with husbands racing off to work in their colorful Corvettes and Pontiacs, leaving their wives waving goodbyes from perfectly manicured lawns. It’s all a waterfall of clichés, which have been done and done and done before, much like the bacon, egg, and coffee breakfast that Wilde uses to mark each passing day with a perfunctory flurry of dynamic cuts, of course. Through all this, we are introduced to Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles), a couple who seem to have things worked out, at least juxtaposed to their friends Bunny (Olivia Wilde) and Dean (Nick Kroll), whose brand of playfulness suggests some well-worn resentments. First, let’s get something out of the way: the million-dollar question of Harry Styles’ transition to film, following his successful appearance in Dunkirk, remains open-ended. Yes, his performance here is stiff, and he and Pugh lack the chemistry the narrative suggests they possess, but the only people able to make the stilted screenplay work are Wilde and Kroll, whose roles are largely comedic. Any serious performance, from Pugh to Pine, struggles against these limitations. Take, for example, the luminous KiKi Layne, the emotional core of If Beale Street Could Talk, who sounds absolutely wooden delivering dead weight like: “Why are we here? We shouldn’t be here!” It’s a line that’s so ridiculously blunt and obvious, but one that serves as the film’s thesis nevertheless.
This question of “Why are we here?” sends Alice spiraling on fast-forward, and so like watching a film edited for television and broken up by commercial breaks, we jump from composed and happy Florence Pugh to a disheveled and tormented one in the span of a few quick cuts. No one was expecting Wilde to deliver Jeanne Dielman, but the shallow treatment of the subject matter is here particularly pronounced. A more fitting juxtaposition would be this film’s biggest influence, The Stepford Wives (1975), known more as a shorthand reference at this point than as an actual movie, but one that builds and shines in its quiet paces and grounded melancholy, until the abrupt final chapter. We spend enough time with its lead protagonist Joanna to have a complete vision of her wants and needs and the tensions at play in her marriage. That film uses the heightened stakes of its fantasy to elevate the typical push-and-pull compromises that women are pressured to make under the weight of patriarchal expectations while escalating the drama to its dire conclusion. Don’t Worry Darling has just a scene or two that hint at this, and they are easily the best in the film, by far the simplest, and you’ll know them the second you see them. Sadly, that’s just not enough. Pugh has carried the weight of emotionally difficult works like Lady Macbeth and Midsommar with apparent ease, but the scarcity of character development is far too heavy a burden even for a performer of her caliber. And so, she she’s left only to push herself with steadfast determination against the wall of an unyielding script and Wilde’s overbearing aesthetics.
At the very least there’s a silver lining to Wilde’s cornucopia of visual reference, and this directorial philosophy to throw everything but the kitchen sink can occasionally hit on target. Notable highlights include the Busby Berkley dance numbers, a scene where the walls close in and press Alice to the glass until you hear a crunch, and one that finds her casually cracking empty eggshells with such grace; these transcend their leaden metaphors to be striking and memorable sequences in their own right, and stick with you in surprising ways. On the other hand, the relentless score, with its breathy chanting that hopes (and fails) to evoke the significance of Pugh’s breakdown in Midsommar is paired with an endless parade of flashback cutaways that smother the film and any subtlety in their wake. The big reveal, which I’ve been skirting around this whole time, is not particularly satisfying or original, and Chris Pine, who plays the culty big bad, is so underserved by the script that he can’t become the compelling foil this film desperately needs him to be. But then, too, in all of this disappointment is the bizarrely apt dynamic between Alice and Bunny — would you believe mirrors are a motif in this film? — that awkwardly parallels Pugh’s and Wilde’s falling out in real life, capped off by an outrageous closing chase sequence that finally drags the whole ponderous mess into camp and feels fun for the first time since the opening shot. And so we close on Pugh driving away from the mess as fast as she can, and Wilde filming action as she preps for her hilariously predictable next move to the MCU. Looking back through the endless hype and gossip cycles that paved the way to this moment, it’s bittersweet to see it all end with such a resounding thud. But hey, we’ll always have Venice.