If it was a “spoiler,” I wouldn’t use the word. And the word for “Don’t Worry Darling” is “Stepford.”
I mean, read and comprehend the title. There it is.
It’s an easily-grasped and obvious analogy for this satiric thriller from director Olivia Wilde and screenwriters Karen Silberman and Carey and Shane Van Dyke, and any filmgoer should pick up on it early on.
What matters is what they and the cast add to that sort of framework, the other possibilities about where this is going and why. A little whiff of “The Master,” a bit of “The Matrix,” a taste of “Truman Show” and a hint of “Twilight Zone” all enter into Wilde’s oddly unaffecting overreach of a Statement on Women in a War-on-Women/Age-of-Incels and the End-of-Roe era.
“Handmaids” much? “Logan’s Run,” anyone?
Forget the bad buzz surrounding the film, meet it on its own terms and it’s a chilly-not-chilling story set in a desert. Avoid the gossip about the actors and you’re still stuck with how uninteresting pop moptop Harry Styles is as an actor, how much Chris Pine leans into his inner Shatner and how unflattering the light or the way the cinematographer lights them makes Pine, leading lady Florence Pugh, the director/co-star Wilde and others look.
Lose yourself in a story that’s cryptic, but not so cryptic that one cannot figure out that it’s all about the wives, and whatever’s going on they’re kind of “Stepford” about it.
Pugh and Styles play “perpetual newlyweds,” a young couple in a 1950s oasis of middle class privilege — a mod ranch-style house in a posh, uniform subdivision, “Victory Town,” in a Palm Springsish corner of the desert.
Alice and Jack don’t need an excuse to go at it, and vigorously, morning noon and night. But dutiful and sexually-fulfilled housewife Alice can’t keep Jack from his clockwork AM departure for work, popping into his T-bird along with all the men in the neighborhood, convoying into the desert to work at “The Victory Project” run by the mysterious, cultish Frank (Pine).
Every day, Alice drinks and gossips in the sun, at the local pool or shopping with her posse (Wilde, Kate Berlant) between bouts of maniacally cleaning the entire house.
At night, rowdy cocktail parties rotate through town, with everybody showing off their Mid Century Modern decor and 1950s pre-rock record collections. Lots of Mel Torme and hepcat jazz-pop and martinis and Tom Collins highballs and cigarettes, even for the ever-pregnant Peg (Berlant).
Whenever the mysterious Frank is around, he praises those willing to “join this mission” to “change the world,” and Frank’s wife (Gemma Chan, chilling), who teaches the ladies’ dance class, compliments one and all for realizing “how extraordinary (Frank) really is.”
But something’s going on, something the wife (Kiki Layne) in the only Black couple of note seems to notice. And Alice can’t help but notice Margaret’s confusion and growing dismay.
“I’m not fine,” Margaret snaps at those who try to comfort her. “Nothing is fine.”
The immaculate design allows us to pick up on “signs” of what’s happening, the daily “radio” chats from Frank that the wives tune into, the buzz words in most every sentence he speaks, the calculating eye contact Pine makes with one and all.
The parody of 1950s life is so on-the-mark that the occasional anachronistic haircut and scripted line doesn’t so much break the movie’s spell as make you ponder what it will do as it takes you where you know it must go. It gets so invested in the women that next to no time at all is devoted to the “providers,” the men also trapped in gender roles in what older, conservative Americans (and Britons) seem to regard as “the good ol’days.”
Pugh, who came to fame in period pieces, seems out of place here, and that could be by design. Alice is an interesting choice for her first real star vehicle. The character is a passive, compliant “team” player waiting for her call to action, and we have to patiently wait with her. Pugh might have had more chemistry with Styles if he didn’t seem like a tall, gawky forelock and a child hanging with the grownups.
Wilde lets herself be filmed and made-up in a way that emphasizes the severity of her features, the “TRON” beauty with a Cruella in her future. I shouldn’t even get into how Nick Kroll, as one of Jack’s colleagues, is lit and framed.
But the original sin of “Don’t Worry Darling” might be how drunk the filmmakers get on the universe they create, dragging and dragging a less and less interesting pastiche of ’50s life — a drunken office party with a stripper, because we’re all so liberal and “modern” — on for so long that the more exciting third act comes as a refreshing jolt.
Sure, it’s as predictable as scores of science fiction finales. But the viewer’s big gripe at this point has to be, “OK, but what TOOK you so long?”
Rating: R for sexuality, violent content and language
Cast: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll, Timothy Simons, Kiki Layne, Gemma Chan and Chris Pine
Credits: Directed by Olivia Wilde, scripted by Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:02