‘Don’t Worry Darling’: Olivia Wilde’s Sophomore Effort Looks Great but Lacks Edge

What a curse sometimes to have your movie surrounded by plenty of scandal before it opens. “Don’t Worry Darling” arrives with a backstory that could be a whole other film on its own, packed with a director dating their younger star, onset rivalries, topped off by film festival snubbing and spitting. All of that furor and the movie turns out to be quite the underwhelming, recycled sci-fi yarn. This is the second directorial effort from Olivia Wilde, once a star on the rise herself who in 2019 made a fantastic directorial debut with “Booksmart.” That was a charming, rebellious story about two straight-A high schoolers who realize there’s more to life than being the perfect student. Somehow the anti-conformist message gets lost in the making of this film, which boasts expensive production credits and glossy cinematography, but at the service of a yawning plot you’ve seen many times before.

Wilde follows in the footsteps of countless other directors who see 1950s aesthetics as the perfect embodiment of deceptive perfection. A young housewife named Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) wakes up to make a pristine American breakfast for husband Jack (Harry Styles). The rest of the routine involves Jack getting into his car and driving out in unison with the other husbands of this cul-de-sac in the middle of a desert, as their attractive wives all wave goodbye from picturesque front lawns. Among the gossipy fellow spouses there’s Bunny (Wilde), who has kids while Alice gets certain looks for not having any yet herself. This place is called Victory and all the men work at something called the Victory Project. What it is we don’t know, only that it was founded by Frank (Chris Pine), the overlord of this community. When Alice starts being rattled by sudden flashes and nightmares, she begins to suspect this town is not all that seems to be. 

If you’ve watched enough of “Black Mirror” or “The Twilight Zone,” or any Jordan Peele movie, you can probably guess where this film is going before the first act is even over. Of course, everything and everyone looks too perfect and eventually the veil will be ripped open. Wilde and screenwriters Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke don’t feel as if they are attempting to find any new roads for this brand of story. Like “Pleasantville” or “The Stepford Wives,” we instantly get that this must be some sort of artificial existence. Wilde’s sense of place is effective, using Palm Springs as the ideal shooting locale for an isolated suburbia eternally bathed in sunshine. In the distance is just desert and mountains, while inside cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a regular collaborator with Darren Aronofsky, films the Chambers’ world with lighting worthy of a flashy catalog. The soundtrack features the usual ‘50s needle drops.

A difference with other, similar projects is that “Don’t Worry Darling” is never clear about saying anything with its narrative. At a low decimal we get that this is a patriarchal system where the women stay home and keep the house looking exquisite while the men work. The pace is just so meandering and serene that we never feel the claustrophobia of “Revolutionary Road” or eeriness of “Pleasantville.” Alice has bad dreams and senses Frank must be up to something nefarious with Victory. One morning the eggs Alice uses for breakfast crush in her hand without any yoke inside. Surely, something is wrong. Some well-staged moments evoke the slightly decadent corporate culture of the place, like a party where legendary burlesque artist Dita Von Teese does her famous giant martini glass routine. There’s not much else to the moment aside from Wilde indulging in being able to include Von Teese in a scene. 

Everyone looks gorgeous of course, and they can also act. Harry Styles, the former One Direction member and now successful solo artist, will garner the most attention because he’s the pop star in the cast. His relationship with Wilde also helps garner even more curiosity. He’s not bad at all at playing a Norman Rockwell suit and tie husband. Styles has presence and empathy, despite not giving anything truly juicy to work with. There is a strange timidity to the writing, despite all the hype surrounding an oral sex scene where he goes down on Pugh. It’s a pretty domesticated moment and later on their marriage is reduced to pecks and arguments that never go anywhere too deep. The same goes for Alice’s other conversations with Bunny or even Frank. Florence Pugh is a good actor, but she also never does anything that even surpasses her other famous, stuck in a nightmare role for “Midsommar.” Chris Pine is left playing such a generic cultish leader that there’s no complexity to the role. We just know he’s the designated bad guy from the start.

There’s no satirical bite taking aim at American privilege, patriarchy or much else. One very odd or simply unwise move, the only notable Black American character is a resident named Margaret (KiKi Layne), who has a breakdown at a party, insisting something is wrong. We later learn she ventured out with her daughter to a no go zone blocked off by Victory. Aside from that, she never reappears or has any importance in the plot. It’s as if she’s a mere token Black character to throw in. The rest of the plotting is so stale no one’s even having an affair in this world. Wilde instead seems very much in love with the gorgeous images she’s constructing, which certainly pull us into the environment, but it’s like visiting a very nice mall and realizing you don’t care for any of the shops. Suburban dystopia is a genre not everyone can tackle, as George Clooney learned with his own ill-received “Suburbicon.”

“Don’t Worry Darling” eventually has to feature a twist and when it arrives, it’s another variation on multiple films that surely marked the adolescence of Wilde, who is a millennial, such as “Dark City” or “The Matrix.” Yet there’s no sense of resolution and everything is quickly tied up with a generic chase scene. No consequences or closure meet the villain and the final shot tries to be enigmatic but it’s just unfulfilling. After making a big revelation about the reality of Victory, Wilde doesn’t see the story all the way through to a satisfying, complete conclusion. We’re left having to assume things without clarity. What can be said with confidence about this movie is that it still confirms Olivia Wilde has skill as a director and in this case, can make a dull script look great. But after the energetic freedom of “Booksmart,” she should continue striving for something that truly lights the fires of inspiration. For this neighborhood it feels like she was just passing through and got distracted by all the drama that was going on behind the scenes. Now that would be a story to tell.“

Don’t Worry Darling” releases Sept. 23 in theaters nationwide.