Florence Pugh Gets Caught up in Olivia Wilde’s Mid-Century Modern Hellscape
DIRECTED BY OLIVIA WILDE/2022
Oh, the drama…! What’s to be said of a young, smart, attractive woman and her even younger, even more attractive British lover finding themselves cornered, watched at every turn?
Having relocated to a bizarre intentional community in the dessert known as “The Victory Project”, young marrieds Alice and Jack Chambers (Florence Pugh and Harry Styles) seem to be living the dream. As in, the Eisenhower era flat-roof-houses suburban Better Homes and Gardens American dream. But, something is off. Something is askew. Actually, as we’ll come to learn, several things are askew- including, unfortunately, the script of this film.
Co-written, co-starring, and directed by successful actress Olivia Wilde, Don’t Worry Darling falls flat among other such big bold go-for-broke movie misfires. For the first two-thirds of the film’s inflated two-plus-hour running time, Wilde’s patchwork project manages a moderate if ham-fisted build to the resolution of a central long-brewing mystery at the center of this Mad Man land. All the women see their men off to work in the driveways with farewell affection. The fellas, in dorky unison, pull their sleek steel Tupperware-colored vintage cars out of the driveway and head deeper into the dessert to do whatever unseen things they do all day. One may mistake the movie to be a prequel to Edward Scissorhands, where the exact same scene also occurred. That is, until the scene from Get Out occurs, in which a woman at a polite gathering has a traumatic meltdown, signaling that something is very, very wrong in their world. Also, it signals that we’re in Jordan Peele wannabe territory. It could be worse… (It gets worse).
For the most part, Alice seems to be doing pretty well. She spends her days cleaning house and polishing a lot of symbolism-laden glass and mirrors. She also invests a lot of time making those perfect 1950s meals, but isn’t averse to shoving it all onto the floor uneaten if another, sexier use for the dining room table suddenly arises. Oh yes, there’s plenty of passion in her world, and she’s doing quite all right in that department. But then, she begins to realize that all may not be on the level in Victory.
And whamo! You know bad things are lurking when she begins to have reoccurring flashes of retina dialysis and black & white Busby Berkeley routines where all the kaleidoscopic dancing girls have skulls for faces. As weird as these classic Hollywood-gone-Day of the Dead bursts might feel, maybe they’re not so odd considering that the only thing that’s ever on TV in her house is Ub Iwerks’ Skeleton Dance. Watching that macabre Silly Symphony on an endless loop, Alice is bound to have dancing black & white skeletons on the brain. Just don’t ask what all of that has to do with anything. Somewhere just beneath the surface, I’m sure there’s a perfectly artsy-fartsy explanation that makes fine sense to Olivia Wilde. This movie is teeming with this sort of student film imagery.
On the plus side, Don’t Worry Darling can be commended for fully realizing the potential of Chris Pine as a villain. The usually heroic actor appears to be taking very satisfying glee in playing his part-Steve Jobs/part-dynamic cult master character, a one-man unsmashable patriarchy. He and Harry Styles get to cut loose dancing to a big band jazz number in one of those dark and feverish distorted night clubs that turn up in movies from time to time to signify Hell. Styles in the movie can be described as an effective non-present presence, coming and going in his tailored suits throughout. He speaks in a weird cadence at times, although that’s far from the movie’s biggest dealbreaker.
Don’t Worry Darling feels increasingly dumber the more you think about it. And, it’s dumb in the worst way: it’s the dumb movie that thinks it’s smart. (But let’s be clear: it’s not Booksmart). Of course, most people won’t give this film much thought afterwards, because they’re smart enough to spare themselves, and also don’t have to write a review. In the final third, it finally happens: the movie thoroughly unravels right before our eyes. The Big Reveal feels like the result of a last-minute rewrite, but a lazy one at that. If that is indeed the case, one shudders to think of what concept it replaced. Because this one is stupefyingly tired.
And then there’s a car chase- with all the sleek steel Tupperware-colored vintage cars tearing around the desert trying to stop Alice from escaping. Just before she reaches the Victory town limits into nowhere, a garbage truck suddenly rolls into the intersection to block her way out. When that doesn’t work, I half expected a close-up of the truck driver turning to camera and saying with a shrug, “Well, it worked in The Truman Show”! Pugh navigates this Stepford Wives/Rosemary’s Baby/WandaVision nonsense as aptly and professionally as she ought, although it must be said that as far as seeing her in this sort of isolated-community-with-a-secret paranoia, Midsommar is much better.
There’s a silly lot of stuff going on in the likes of Don’t Worry Darling. Apparently, there’s some other stuff going on around it in the real world as well. To those caught up in whatever that’s all about, the film itself will play as a mere simulation of the TMZ of it all. In any case, it will be forgotten soon enough. Only unpleasant memory flashes may remain. And, collectively just a little dumber, we can all look away from this Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Men world and proclaim, “What, Me Worry?”