Just as a bonsai tree is slightly overshadowed by a giant sequoia, “Don’t Worry Darling”, the film comes to us slightly overshadowed by “Don’t Worry Darling”, the generator of gossip behind the scenes. That’s a shame, because a movie should be judged on its merits, not its memes. The film, which was directed by Olivia Wilde, has considerable visual flair, and at its core imaginatively considers a disturbing cultural trend, which I won’t discuss because it’s a third-act reveal.
Not that I would recommend ‘Don’t Worry Darling’. Written by Katie Silberman from a story by brothers Carey and Shane Van Dyke, it suffers from a major structural problem, namely that the endlessly padded middle section reluctantly refuses to get to the point until the audience’s patience is exhausted, and then through sprint a late explanation that deserves more attention.
“Don’t Worry Darling” stars the endlessly impressive Florence Pugh, who excels in every mode as one of a couple of impeccable housewives living in an idyllic yet strange desert community. The women come across as hyper-feminine, or maybe just averagely feminine for the period, which can be seen from the cars and clothing in the post-war years. While the ladies in their fancy dresses wave goodbye, their skinny-tie-wearing men go to work every morning on a secret venture with the overtones of the Manhattan Project, except it’s called the “Victory Project.” The happy young couples spend their evenings enjoying giant steaks, tempting cocktails and vigorous lovemaking. Life is perfect.
Too perfect, in a surreal, “Twilight Zone” way. Katie Byron’s spectacularly detailed 1950s production design and Matthew Libatique’s color-soaked cinematography immediately suggest that the film is a satire, a fantasy, or a combination of both, such as ‘The Truman Show’ or ‘Pleasantville’. The women are so elegant, perky, and giddy housewives that they might as well be residents of a truly optimal place, like Stepford, Conn.
Mrs. Pugh, who can be seen pretty much anywhere on screen, pushes her character, Alice, through a wide range of emotions as she begins to share the alarm of a fellow housewife, Margaret (KiKi Layne), who warns that things will are not as they seem . When Margaret disappears and Alice wanders into an unauthorized area while witnessing what she believes to be a plane crash, she begins to panic. That gets her a visit from a sinister doctor (Timothy Simons) who promises that all her problems will disappear once she starts taking the right meds. Neighbors like her friend Bunny (played by Mrs. Wilde) tell her her concerns are unfounded. And her sweet-tempered rambunctious husband, Jack (Harry Styles), comforts her and reminds her that everyone should be honored to help carry out the grand plans of the charismatic leader of the Victory Project, Frank (Chris Pine). However, through Alice’s eyes, the much-loved Frank begins to resemble a deceitful cult leader.
Mrs. Pugh looks stunning in her mid-century dresses and makeup, once again demonstrating that she is one of the most exciting actresses of her generation, and although Mr. Styles isn’t as impressive in his less demanding role, he shows the potential to follow Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley’s path from pop idol to real-life movie star.
It’s Mrs. Wilde whose self-indulgence drags the film down. Remember how tight those “Twilight Zone” episodes were? Most were around 24 minutes. In “Don’t Worry Darling,” the middle section goes on for about three times as long, because Ms. Wilde can’t stop throwing in scene after scene, making only the slightest variations on the same plot point.
The overall effect is disturbing. Ms. Wilde’s behind-the-camera debut, the teen comedy ‘Booksmart’ three years ago, was funny, but offered little direction. This time Mrs. Wilde is clearly out to change perceptions and makes an ambitious attempt to get in line with the author with key themes and fantastical elements prowling the subconscious mind trying to create a spectacular visual map for Alice’s internal conflict. . But the images, like an eerie close-up of an eyeball and interludes of a Busby Berkeley-style geometric group dance, try to impress and become stale with repetition.
I would certainly rather watch an ambitious film than an unambitious one. But Mrs. Wilde’s film needs more discipline and fewer hallucinations. As it stands, “Don’t Worry Darling” will eventually fall into the same mental category as “The Stepford Wives,” a terrible movie that can be traced back to a punch line.