Producers: Olivia Wilde, Katie Silberman, Miri Yoon and Roy Lee Director: Olivia Wilde Screenplay: Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke Cast: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, Kate Berlant, Timothy Simons, Sydney Chandler, Douglas Smith, Asif Ali and Ari’el Stachel Distributor: Warner Bros.
Much ink has been spilled over the possibility that the bad press about the production problems that beset Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial outing, along with the bad blood among the cast that’s hobbled its publicity campaign, might overshadow the film itself. But the sad fact is that there isn’t much in “Don’t Worry Darling” that’s worth overshadowing. Another of those “Black Script” pictures that prove disappointing when they actually reach the screen, the screenplay by Carey and Shane Van Dyke, reworked by Katie Silberman, turns out to be a “Stepford Wives” clone culminating with an ending that might have been concocted by N. Night Shyamalan on a particularly bad day, like the one he fashioned for “The Village” years ago.
The picture does benefit from strikingly colorful production and costume designs by Katie Byron and Arianne Phillips, respectively, Matthew Libatique’s glossily rich cinematography, and a terrific performance by Florence Pugh. She plays Alice Chambers, one of the perfect housewives in the spic-and-span company community of Victory located in the desert of the American Southwest, ostensibly in the 1950s. All of their husbands have been chosen to work for the Victory Project, a mysterious enterprise to which they all drive off in their bright, spiffily maintained cars from their cookie-cutter ranch-style houses at the same time each morning. The wives are told nothing of what their spouses do during the day except that they’re engaged in the “development of progressive materials,” and they’re prohibited from going beyond the residential community’s prescribed areas to the center where their husbands work, although they do feel the effect of the occasional earthquakes that work apparently causes. They themselves engage in household duties while their hubbies are gone, including preparing sumptuous meals for them—and themselves, for the rounds of evening cocktail parties.
Yet despite the passionate relationship she enjoys with her handsome husband Jack (Harry Styles), Alice begins to have disquieting thoughts about their situation, the result of some disturbing visions of a darker life. Her attitude turns frantic when one of her fellow housewives, Margaret (KiKi Layne)—one of the few black residents—claims knowledge of the horrible reality behind the Victory Project and kills herself while Alice watches in horror. When she demands that Jack tell her what he’s up to at work, she makes herself a target of the community’s founder Frank (Chris Pine), a slick, charismatic promoter who retaliates by giving Jack a promotion that creates a rift with his wife (as well as allowing Styles to do a sexy dance of joy at his new status that should send his myriad fans swooning). And the community doctor (Timothy Simons) assures her that Margaret and her husband (Ari’el Stachel) are fine and just away resting from her “accident.”
The other housewives—Bunny (Wilde), Violet (Sydney Chandler), and Peg (Kate Berlant)—along with their husbands, consider Alice a troublemaker and urge her to get back with the program. So does Jack, who sees her defection as a personal betrayal as well as a professional one. Frank’s cold-as-ice wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), who leads the wives’ dance class, is no less disapproving. But Alice’s unauthorized visit to the forbidden Victory Project headquarters far out in the desert cements her certainty that the entire business is malign.
She’s right of course, and in the last act she’ll attempt to bring it down while Frank’s minions try to stop her. What’s really going on under Frank’s direction is revealed, though it’s hardly as surprising as the screenwriters intend. Even if one’s willing to buy into the explanation, though, the way Alice’s desperate fight against Frank’s insidious control progresses offers lots of action but makes very little sense. It amounts to one of those climaxes that doesn’t just run on, but runs out of gas long before it careens to a close.
Apart from Pugh, who brings energy to burn to the lead, the strongest performance in the movie comes from Pine, who twists his handsome face into a mask of smug superiority that can quickly change to quiet malevolence as he toys with the obstreperous Alice at a dinner party gone wrong. But for a guy who’s supposedly so brilliant and confident, he proves absurdly ineffectual in the end; you’d think he’d have an easy solution prepared for such an eventuality. As for Styles, who replaced Shia LaBeouf as Jack during production, he comes across more like a model trying to act than an actual actor, but his devotees probably won’t mind. (It is, however, difficult not to imagine how LaBeouf would have played the character.) Wilde is surprisingly strident as Alice’s neighbor who knows more than she’s letting on, but then it’s always difficult to direct oneself. The rest of the cast is committed, but it’s inevitable that in this sort of fable overacting, or underacting that’s really overacting, becomes the norm.
Credit to set decorator Rachael Ferrara, whose work complements Byron’s, making for a stunning, if deliberately unconvincing, simulacrum of ideal Eisenhower-era suburban life. Affonso Gonçalves’ editing sometimes goes awry—Styles’s dance sequence, example, is clumsily integrated with other action (and it’s one of the instances in which Libatique’s technique fails him, too)—and John Powell’s score is no great shakes, and the pop songs inserted into the music are, if obvious in terms of the commentary they make, appropriate; the visual effects supervised by Dan Schrecker are hardly cutting-edge, but they’ll do.
But neither the craftsmanship lavished on “Don’t Worry Darling” nor the performances can disguise that this is a well-worn tale of feminist rebellion against male dominion, a retread aspiring to say something profound but proving to be hackneyed and, in the end, rather dull.