This review was originally published on 9/23/22.
You can’t throw a rock on social media this month without stumbling on some discussion of Don’t Worry Darling. By its Venice Film Festival premiere, the period drama shifted almost instantaneously from a quiet September release to a gossip magnet with almost soap opera levels of intrigue behind the scenes. Who fired who? Who spit on who? Do we really care? Well, as the movie finally hits theaters and puts the longest press tour on record to a merciful end, one must ask, is it worth all the hype?
Well, here goes nothing. The audience is dropped into a desert subdivision in the early 1950s (roughly). A young couple (Florence Pugh and Harry Styles) live idyllic lives. We learn early on it’s thanks to their great sex life. Plus, in a very un-1950s lifestyle choice, they have no children. Things are peachy. He’s gainfully employed for a mysterious company, and she’s thriving in her role of keeping house.
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However, when a neighbor (KiKi Layne) begins struggling with her mental health, Alice wonders if things are as perfect as they seem. Anything beyond this is spoiler territory, kids. So, that’s all you’re getting. Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, Kate Berlant and Timothy Simons co-star in the movie. Wilde directs Don’t Worry Darling from a script by Kate Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke.
Don’t Worry Darling is Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort. She first stepped behind the camera to helm 2019’s Booksmart. The much-loved teen sex comedy broke ground and showed her ready to take the next step in her career. This time out, Wilde is having a blast as director. She brings together an incredibly luscious visual world in each frame of this period thriller.
Her craft teams, from costumes to set design and even cinematography, function at the peak of their powers. In their hands, this up-scale, candy-colored subdivision in the middle of the desert is a joy to watch. If you (like me!) adore the aesthetic: “Palm Springs circa 1954,” you’ll love Don’t Worry Darling.
Meanwhile, it will surprise no one to say Florence Pugh brings another epic performance to the screen. Pugh fast established herself as one of the best performers of her generation, and by jumping into the role of Alice, she continues to show exactly why. She dives fully into this character, fearlessly immersing herself in all the complexity inherent in this challenging woman.
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Ultimately, while Alice is easy to sympathize with, she isn’t the easiest person to like. Don’t Worry Darling sags noticeably in its character construction. In their script, Silberman and the Van Dykes struggle to establish these characters as people in a realistic world and set up the inevitable (and frustrating) “Ooo! What a twist!” moment. No spoilers here, though. Despite many memorable performances, these talented actors struggle to create depth and humanity, which isn’t present in the script.
This is particularly noticeable in the men who (except Chris Pine) are frustratingly wasted. Don’t get me wrong; Harry Styles continually awes me with how disconcertingly timeless he is. The musician is one of the most avante-garde (and in that, most contemporary) figures working in music today.
However, between Don’t Worry Darling, Dunkirk and the upcoming My Policeman, he feels entirely at home in the middle of the 20th century. He truly is a “man out of time.” Unfortunately, while there are glimmers of some compelling work in Styles’ performance, the script largely hangs him out to dry. His role could be far more interesting.
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The same can be said for Nick Kroll. The comedian steps in to play Dean, Alice’s neighbor’s (Olivia Wilde) husband. That sums up his role. He’s the next-door neighbor. This character has so little to do, it’s a wonder why a name actor was brought in at all. In other movies, this is a bit part.
The script does spend more time with the neighborhood’s housewives. Ultimately, the men in this universe (in the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” tradition) leave for work every morning. They have their own stories we don’t see. It is the housewives’ perspectives we’re interested in.
However, even the ladies aren’t allowed to show many glimmers of humanity. Sure, they talk about the other housewives and even Alice and Jack’s (Styles) active sex life. It’s fun to watch, and the moments give the classic imagery a bit of a contemporary zing, but unfortunately, little more than that.
In its depiction of the 1950s, Don’t Worry Darling is guilty of a common problem. Our culture loves to over-simplify the 1950s. Certainly, we remember the sitcoms and images of white-picket-fence suburban living. However, in a story as deeply rooted in gender dynamics as Don’t Worry Darling is, this narrative is far more interested in presenting simplistic people in this familiar and sanitized world.
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This movie wants to be super edgy. Unfortunately, it isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. Movies like The Stepford Wives take more chances. In a contemporary examination of the 1950s, we should be able to present something more reflective and not fall back on the same simplistic ideas we’ve seen depicted over and over again for the last half-century.
It must be stated that a discussion of spoilers does potentially explain some of these choices. People either love or hate “the twist,” which happens deep in the second act with absolutely no setup. It’s jarring, and this writer ultimately felt awkwardly jammed into the structure. A spoiler review of this movie will undoubtedly read differently. A two-hour film should not serve as fluff for the last twenty minutes. The need to build up the desired narrative twist does not excuse sloppy and lazy storytelling.
Ultimately, Don’t Worry Darling is best described as an example of style over substance filmmaking. The movie wastes a really interesting world to set up a poorly executed twist. It is desperate to be incredibly smart and edgy but loses a step in sloppy execution. Unfortunately, despite solid performances and impressive direction, Don’t Worry Darling isn’t able to stick the landing.
Don’t Worry Darling opens in theaters around the country on September 23, 2022.
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