Significantly Less Pleasantville — Don’t Worry Darling
Earlier this year, Alex Garland’s Men gave audiences a thoughtful, layered, and visionary approach to the concept of toxic masculinity, creating a story that blurred the lines of horror, fantasy, and reality, led by absolutely deft performances from Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a raw, visceral depiction of how awful members of my gender can be at times.
Four months later, Olivia Wilde submits her sophomore effort (after the brilliant Booksmart) with Don’t Worry Darling, a title I can only assume exists to be legally distinct from the Beach Boys song, “Don’t Worry Baby.” I’m only half joking, here. They say “baby” an awful lot in this movie, but never once say “darling,” and it makes me wonder if the former was meant to be in the title, but they couldn’t license the song. Anyway, whereas Garland crafted something borderline profound in his aggressive demonstration of how much men can suck, Wilde seems to settle for a cheap, “Hey, did you know that men suck?” approach, lifting almost every significant element in this movie from much better work and saying practically nothing in the process. It’s a visually pleasing film, but from a plot and thematic perspective, it’s just an alarmingly boring pseudo-thriller filled with the sort of feminist platitudes lazily spouted by a college student skimming the CliffsNotes of a first year Women’s Studies class.
Set in what is meant to be viewed as an idyllic 50s-style suburb that only exists in TV sitcoms of the time and in the brains of right wing politicians who thought they were real, the main action centers on a young couple, Alice (Florence Pugh, who keeps this film out of the basement through sheer force of will) and her husband, Jack (Harry Styles). They live in a cul-de-sac in a planned community for the employees of the Victory Project, a secretive tech company in the middle of the desert, where Jack works as an engineer. Alice is a happy housewife, cooking and cleaning to her heart’s content while listening to the radio and humming a tune she can’t quite place (I’ll save you the trouble on that one, it’s an original song that Styles wrote for the film, rather than any of the numerous catalog tracks of the era that play throughout). She greets Jack at the door nightly with a cocktail and a hot meal on the table, and he in turn satisfies her sexually.
Whenever Alice isn’t doing chores, she spends time with her fellow homemakers, chiefly Peg (Kate Berlant) who is perpetually pregnant, newcomer Violet (Sydney Chandler), and next door neighbor Bunny (yes, they really paired “Alice” with “Bunny” in case the analogy wasn’t obvious enough), played by Wilde herself, who mostly just drinks, smokes, and quips. When the director can’t even be bothered to put in a decent performance, you know something’s not right, and that’s without even mentioning the myriad rumors of on-set turmoil. The daily activities for the group include lounging by the pool, shopping, and for some reason, daily ballet class with Shelley (Gemma Chan), the wife of Victory’s CEO, who repeats a mantra about how there’s beauty and peace in controlled environments. LAY IT ON THICKER, WHY DON’T YA?!
Things start to take a sinister turn at a garden party hosted by that CEO, Frank, played by Chris Pine, who is as patently evil as any film character I’ve seen in recent years. From the very first instant you see him, spying on his guests from an indoor walkway, you’re already wondering why he isn’t twirling a mustache. When he finally addresses the group, his smarm is on full display as he recites empty tautologies about progress and freedom, only to be interrupted by Margaret (KiKi Layne), another housewife, who ominously claims that it’s all lies and that there are people coming after her.
She is of course dismissed as being emotionally unstable, and has been shunned by the rest of the community because she broke the only rule for any of the wives, which is to stay home, “where it’s safe,” and never go to Victory headquarters. Margaret committed that cardinal sin, and has been “crazy” ever since. Still, the incident rattles Alice, and eventually she starts seeing flashes of things she doesn’t understand, memories she can’t trace. One day, she sees a plane crash near headquarters and decides to go after it (even though it’s MILES beyond any distance she could walk in a day), breaking the rule herself and becoming more aware of the weird and incongruous stuff going on around her.
This leads to an eye-rolling parade of gaslighting by everyone around her, from Bunny, who scolds her not to ruin Jack’s career, to Victory’s shady as fuck in-house doctor (Timothy Simons), who wants to prescribe a drug cocktail to “set her right,” and Jack himself, who assures her that she’s just imagining things that never happened. It’s all so basic and entry-level, right down to cliché lines like, “Everyone thinks I’m crazy. I’m not crazy!” Before long, we’re thrust into a climax so mind-bogglingly stupid that I can’t even reveal to you what the biggest ripoff is within it (and there are a LOT) without spoiling the so-called “twist.”
But more than anything, a lot of this is just pointless. The plane crash comes out of nowhere and is never explained, especially not within the context of the film’s resolution. Frank’s Orwellian menace (seriously, he narrates a daily propaganda radio broadcast while Alice cleans house) has no practical motivation (only a thematic one that is just pathetic in its execution), so when he spies on Jack and Alice having sex or directly taunts Alice about how much he knows about what she knows, there’s no satisfaction in seeing our hero face off against the villain. The last second character turns only denigrate the people involved, as we’ve been given no information up until that point that would justify their actions. Even though both Florence Pugh and Harry Styles are British, only Styles opts for a British accent (it’s explained late, but it’s so dumb they might as well not have bothered) while Pugh uses a convincing American one, a sad highlight of just how much better an actor she is than him (he’s fine, but he’s not quite to leading man levels yet). For some reason there are two Asian kids in sailor suits serving drinks in one scene, both Alice and Bunny comment on it being creepy, and then they’re never seen again.
Now, that’s not to say that the film is a total loss. While pretty much every performance outside of Pugh is wasted and the script is complete trash, Olivia Wilde’s directorial eye has taken the next step since her last feature. There are several really good looking scenes, particularly the melding of a ring of synchronized dancers with the iris and pupil of an eye. Another high point sees Alice washing a glass wall that begins closing in and pressing her against another. A model of the town is laid out like a golden spiral, a sound visual metaphor. There’s an extended scene where Jack swing dances like a mad puppet on strings that is just outstanding. This is a well-directed piece of cinema.
But that’s also the problem. A lot of these shots look cool, but have no real purpose. They don’t advance the story, but rather confuse it by providing a distraction rather than developing the plot or characters. I mean, what is the real point of the window smushing bit, for instance? Does it really happen to Alice? If so, how? If not, then doesn’t that lend credence to the idea that Alice is just paranoid and anxious, rendering the gaslighting argument moot? Every time one of these things pops up, the first question I always ask is, “Why?” If there’s a germane reason for the eerie imagery, that’s fine. But if it’s just there to be off-putting, or to drive the next story beat without proper explanation, then it only comes off as superfluous and feels like a waste of time that could have been better spent developing something actually compelling. And this happens way too often in this movie. I’m all for creative visuals, but when they’re as empty as the eggs Alice cracks in an early scene, why do I care?
Oh wait, I’m not supposed to ask such things. I’m just supposed to buy that an entire conspiracy could be so poorly constructed that it can be taken down by one woman who dares to not stay at home and keep quiet. That’s what counts for discourse if this film is to be believed. To hold the thesis to even the slightest bit of scrutiny, even if it’s just to point out plot holes so huge a truck could fall into them, is to be complicit in the oppression and silence the victim.
And that’s just lazy storytelling. You can have a heavy-handed message and still be successful. I mean, Men was about as far from subtle as you can get. But if you’re going to take that route, you have to do something original and creative with it that gets our attention and allows us in the audience to brush aside the one-note moral because it’s in service to something more ambitious and grand. Don’t Worry Darling accomplishes none of that, opting for the most anodyne “men trying to keep women down” lip service instead of saying anything meaningful from a feminist perspective, while outright stealing from TONS of established IP in the process. The camera work and production design are strong, and Florence Pugh gives it everything she’s got, but just like those 50s sitcoms that inspired this world, it’s not worth taking seriously for even a minute.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you prefer Olivia Wilde as an actor or director? Would your life be perfect if Florence Pugh was your wife? Let me know!