Olivia Wilde’s 2019 directorial debut “Booksmart” was a genuinely warm and humorous look at female friendship. With her sophomore feature, Wilde broadens her scope in favor of a narrative that’s much more ambitious. But that’s about the best thing I can say about “Don’t Worry Darling,” a repetitive thriller whose feminist themes are too broad, too muddled, and most crucially, don’t have anything new to say that hasn’t been beaten over our heads a million times before.
Wilde’s technical prowess as a director is still on full display in the film, however. Along with production designer Katie Byron and costume designer Arianne Phillips, she creates a mid-century modern paradise out of the 1950s-set town of Victory, California (which looks suspiciously like Palm Springs), where symmetry reigns. Every house is neat and orderly. There’s always sun, and rows of palm trees. The wives wave to their husbands as they leave for work every morning, pulling out of their driveways in their sporty cars at the same time in an almost balletic fashion. Just what that job is, the women aren’t exactly sure, and they’re told not to ask, or to follow them out into the desert, as they are reportedly working with dangerous materials. Victory, as led by the company town’s founder Frank (Chris Pine), is perfect, so long as you don’t look at it too closely.
But that’s just what Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) ends up doing. It starts with the erratic behavior of her neighbor and former friend Margaret (KiKi Layne). She notices strange things like a plane crash that no one else sees, or the fact that the eggs are just empty shells, or that she keeps humming a tune that she can’t place but also can’t get out of her head. Alice keeps probing further, to the irritation of her husband Jack (Harry Styles), and the fascination of Frank.
If you’re a sci-fi aficionado, you can probably guess where “Don’t Worry Darling” is going, and even if you don’t, the twist is revealed so haphazardly at the end that it doesn’t really matter anyway. “Don’t Worry Darling” never justifies it’s slightly over two hour runtime, choosing to put Alice and the audience through numerous repetitive steps to get to the finale, which subsequently feels too hurried. It’s not exactly a terrible movie, despite the pacing issues; as mentioned before, it looks great, has a great old school soundtrack (even though there’s an over-reliance an needle drops), and is carried by a bevy of talented performers. Pugh is a solid lead whose likeability goes a long way toward drawing the audience’s investment in her story, just barely avoiding going too overboard with the hysterics. Pine seems to relish playing a villain, a guy whose surface level charm masks something more sinister. Gemma Chan plays his icy wife Shelley, and Wilde, as Alice’s irreverent friend and neighbor Bunny, has a supporting turn that’s surprisingly one of the movie’s highlights. Styles lags behind the rest, but I don’t think even he is terrible; he’s more just Generic White Leading Man. He isn’t able to convey the interiority of his character very well, but I chalk that up less to him and more to the script.
That’s really where the bulk of the faults lie in “Don’t Worry Darling.” The screenplay by Katie Silberman, based on a spec script by Carey and Shane Van Dyke, has no new ideas of its own, and Wilde, who in the real world has made no shortage of enthusiastic but broad statements regarding her own notions of feminism, just confused it further. There’s seems to be a desire to have it both ways: Wilde wants to focus on female pleasure (“men don’t come in this movie” she proclaimed in a Variety profile), while portraying oppression in a world that’s been constructed ultimately for the pleasure of men, and the fact that none of these women are really their own person. The characters’ wants are shallow. Men in this world apparently only desire the subservient 50s housewife, who does all the cooking and cleaning and greets them at the end of the day in a glittering dress, cocktail in hand. Women turn on their men so suddenly that the gesture feels like a girlboss moment designed to provoke cheers but ultimately feeling hollow. The treatment of Layne’s character—just about the only Black person in the movie—is gross and violently uses her to serve as little more than the white protagonist’s awakening. Even the imagery feels too on the nose, as beautiful as it is: the literal closing in of walls on Alice, or the oft-repeated motif of dancers performing in Busby Berkeley-esque kaleidoscopic routines. There’s a lot more to be said about “Don’t Worry Darling,” particularly in regards to internet radicals, but it’s hard not to without getting into blatant spoilers; suffice it to say that what Wilde appears to be going for and what we actually see on screen frequently feel at odds with each other.
Even in its more tedious bits, “Don’t Worry Darling” drums up just enough intrigue to be watchable. But it far lacks the focus Wilde possessed in “Booksmart,” serving as evidence of a filmmaker operating a little out of her depth, exhibiting the sort of empty feminism that Hollywood has loved to peddle instead of actual, actionable change in the post-Me Too era, and ending less with a bang and more with a question mark as to what it was all for.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated R.