I told myself I wasn’t going to talk about bad press, but Don’t Worry Darling is a movie about lies, so I lied. Here’s a one sentence summary of the bad press. Shia LaBeouf is fired no wait, he quitdirected by Olivia Wilde and Harry Styles sitting on a tree good maybe notFlorence Pugh Skips Promotional Launch, No Wait She’s Staring In Dune 2, Harry Just Ejected something from his lips onto Chris Pine’s lap, no wait, he didn’t, actually, I think he just spit bubble gum or something not really at the Venice Film Festival.
So how is the movie?
Disappointment! Disappointment. Everything was wrong with “Don’t Worry Darling” from the beginning. Even a good director—and Wilde is, though her hand in crafting this material clearly wasn’t without mistakes—has to deal with screenplay problems when they’re there, in the story, lurking, waiting to screw things up and send the audience reeling. wait what?
Filmed in and around Palm Springs, it takes place in a planned settlement (and how!) that houses the employees of Project Victory, an apparently sinister operation tasked with building … something in the desert, maybe a weapon, maybe something yet. “Progressive materials,” they call it. The husbands are sworn to secrecy; wives know very little, and are valued for their discretion and smiling compliance. The story takes place during Sinatra’s peak, the late 50s and early 60s. The hi-fi is always spinning, and there are two rules to Don’t Worry Darling: don’t worry; and don’t go outside the community, especially not anywhere near “Headquarters” in the mountains.
Pugh plays Alice; Stiles is Jack, and their child-free, ring-a-ding-ding life is pretty sweet: lots of sex, booze, red meat, bacon, and fried eggs. Jack has a bright future with The Company, run by Frank (Chris Pine, a witty, cold-blooded guru in shades). Alice’s small cul-de-sac life revolves around gossip with neighbor Bunny (Director Wilde in a supporting role), Suspiria-level ballet classes conducted by Frank’s wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), and aggressive cleaning regimes. But what is the tune in Alice’s head that she can’t stop humming? Will some refrain from the past? And why is her friend and neighbor Margaret (KiKi Lane) up there on the roof about to cut her own throat after dire warnings of a trap and a sort of cocktail of slave labor completely beyond the wives’ control?
Visual stress indicators fly freely in this joyless desert paradise. A grotesquely oily close-up of the marinated meat suggests that something is wrong with that T-bone. Alice’s hallucinations, or daydreams, or drug-induced nightmares center around a Busby Berkeley-inspired chorus of scissors in precise geometric patterns in black and white.
What does this have to do with what men do when they go to work?
Maybe something, maybe not. In any case, Don’t Worry Darling is, at most, an hour of a puzzle stretched over two. Screenwriter Kathy Silberman, who cooperated with director Wilde on “Booksmart,” drip-drip-drip clues and flashbacks throughout, delaying the inevitable reveal and explanation. When it comes, it comes hard, without the clarity or impact to take care of business. In the interview, Wilde dropped references to The Truman Show and Inception and, less so, because The Kids don’t know it, The Stepford Wives. Her film is driven by the notion of a woman succumbing to a controlling, condescending patriarchal force that sucks the air out of her life and free will. Jason Sudeikis, you are served!
I mean, not really; “Don’t Worry Darling” doesn’t name names, but it highlights the thesis of feminism that has arrived in recent times with an increasingly bright highlighter. Complicating matters, the film operates on a consistent level of design and execution, with a carefully prescribed look and texture skillfully executed, at least until a climax that smacks of narrative problems rather than narrative closure.
Contrary to popular belief, Stiles is not the “problem” of this film; he is few and Pugh must act a lot to have something go with him in dramatic scenes. But Silberman and Wilde should have seen the problems with their story and its central, rusty hook literally years before filming began. In the pivotal dinner party sequence, the film’s best, Pugh and Pine converge like junkyard dogs on atomic-age themes, and the way they perfect their cat-and-mouse routine, as Dino once sang, is a real head-scratcher. . Sometimes, if only for a few minutes, the right actors can save a movie from itself.
“Don’t worry dear” – 2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA Rating: R (for Sexuality, Violent Content and Language)
How to watch: Premieres in theaters Thu. September 22.
Michael Phillips is a critic for the Tribune.
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