The halcyon neighborhood in Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling looks like something a production designer would mount for a 1950s suburban setting (think Pleasantville or Edward Scissorhands). In the director’s sophomore feature after the winning Booksmart, that begins to make more sense as time passes. The male characters are all about appearance and maintaining a certain Mad Men vibe. Their wives are expected to maintain the home (though there are more frequent opportunities for cocktails given the pined for time period). You don’t need to be a cinephile to suspect this idealized community could be a facade and that dark secrets lurk. You might be reminded of several films with similar themes that were more successful. Meanwhile… that production design and other tech aspects? They’re exquisite. So is the lead performance. They’re also contained in a story that’s often baffling in its narrative design.
Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) is a resident of Victory, California where everyone seems to have a winning attitude. Her husband Jack (Harry Styles), along with the rest of the townsmen, work at Headquarters where their uniform job description is developing “progressive materials”. Alice and the rest of the spouses have no clue what that means and seem more concerned with the sheets being properly folded and the roast being cooked at the proper temperature. The unofficial ruler of Victory is Frank (Chris Pine). In addition to being the boss at Headquarters (where the ladies are strictly forbidden from visiting), he has daily indoctrination monologues disguised as a radio show. The call letters could be CULT.
The tranquil facade is threatened when Alice’s friend Margaret (KiKi Layne) begins making accusations about the hierarchy. Shortly thereafter, Alice’s experiences have her questioning this reality. That doesn’t sit well with Frank or Jack, who’s climbing up the corporate ladder. She also finds little support from next door neighbor and bestie Bunny (Wilde), who seems perfectly content with the setup. Same with Frank’s doting wife Shelley (Gemme Chan).
Don’t Worry Darling, with a screenplay from Booksmart scribe Katie Silberman, finds influences from many sources. Notable ones include The Matrix, The Truman Show, and obviously The Stepford Wives. For a while (easily the first half), it’s a decently intriguing and gorgeously rendered paranoia thriller. Yet I couldn’t shake where I thought it was headed and once it got there, it felt as empty as Alice’s daytime activities. This is no fault of the actress playing her. Pugh is a firecracker and that’s not matched by her costars. The charisma of Styles, so evident in his role as Biggest Male Pop Star on the Planet, isn’t evident here.
Silberman’s script leaves plenty of questions burning in the Victory sun. When the credits rolled, I was only mildly interested in the light being shed on them. The style is present with Darling. The substance slows down the progression of this material.
**1/2 (out of four)