‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Review: Wilde In Retrograde

Aaron Neuwirth reviews the stylish but weak Don't Worry Darling, starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, and Chris Pine.
User Rating: 4

This impression of 1950s Americana allows so many films from various decades to explore this optimistic yet constricting vision in exciting ways. Don’t Worry Darling could have been a refreshing take given the emphasis it wants to put on a woman poking through the façade, all while the movie explores gender roles in a manner that goes over much differently in 2022 compared to the past, and coming from female filmmakers, no less. Sadly, while there’s enough to respect in terms of style, the results come across as a movie too skittish to engage with what’s been set up on a deeper level. As a result, there is one thing to worry about: how redundant the proceedings become.

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles star as Alice and Jack, a married couple living in the idyllic company town of Victory, California. The two are depicted as happy and very much into each other. During the week, Jack heads off to work on the “Victory Project” at a mysterious company, while Alice stays home and plays housewife. Whatever’s going on, the cracks are starting to show, as Alice soon finds herself digging deeper and deeper into the foundation of her seemingly perfect life.

Don’t Worry Darling is the second directorial effort from Olivia Wilde, following the acclaimed Booksmart. Having a larger budget, more known stars, and a high concept means a studio is letting the filmmaker have a chance to do something unique that could possibly line her up for future endeavors, whether that involves the IP-focused environment, something more prestigious, or whatever else depending on the success of this film. It’s honestly sad to think a major studio delivering a mid-budget psychological thriller to theaters is some kind of win to champion, regardless of the film, but here we are.

With that in mind, looking at the film’s visuals and overall atmosphere, there’s plenty to admire. With a great cinematographer (Matthew Libatique, in this instance) and solid production design, one can no doubt make 50s-era cars, buildings, and clothing interesting and exciting to see captured with modern lenses, particularly when the movie is designed to be trippy. Booksmart benefited from not only having a sharp screenplay and strong performances but also showing more flair from behind the camera. This follow-up film continues that pattern, making good use of the evocative location that becomes turned upside down over time.

It’s just a shame that the screenplay by Katie Silberman (from a story by Carey and Shane Van Dyke) has so little to offer. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with borrowing elements from other features, this is certainly a film that doesn’t try to hide its various influences. The Stepford Wives is the most obvious film to reference; noting any others would be a spoiler. Still, regardless of the works cited, there’s just not a lot in Don’t Worry Darling that feels unique or refreshing.

The setup is intriguing, as the journey is not quite spelled out yet. Seeing this community, which is populated by various performers, most of whom end up fading in the background, establishes the sort of angle that’s been parodied plenty at this point when it comes to watching identical cars of different colors leaving their similar homes in the mornings, as the women stay home and clean up the house. Sadly, when the supposedly shocking twists come into play, the waters are truly muddied.

Exploring the unknown is all well and good, and those less versed in various psychodramas may be better served by what takes place, but I couldn’t help but think the discoveries made warranted more investigation. That’s not to say I wanted the film to draw everything on a chalkboard, with all the intricate details being told to me outright. No, I simply wished the second and third acts had more to offer than what amounted to replays of the things we had been seeing as an attempt to ramp up the tension.

By the time the film reached its climax, it felt like watching the final stages of a video game. Thematically, I get what Don’t Worry Darling is going for. Still, given the characters we’ve met, the scenario that has unfolded, and the choices being made visually, it felt like a lot of opportunity being squandered. All that’s left is a message concerning the thought of believing women and seeing what’s gained by realizing one’s independence, among other familiar concepts. These aren’t bad things to highlight, but even while putting aside certain levels of predictability, the journey feels too mild for a result that offers so little.

Now, being the type of film that relies on a central performance to ideally carry things through, Pugh at least delivers all that’s needed to properly sell the mental anguish Alice is suffering. It’s not a “big” performance in the way other stars who really engage with genre tend to deliver, but it’s enough to at least guide the film along its shaky path. Less effective is Styles. Whether it’s the performer, the writing of the character, or the direction, there’s a missing element to Jack that could have been a significant help to this story.

From a supporting standpoint, Chris Pine is very good as Frank, the face of the mysterious company. He is wisely used sparingly to better convey how his possible menace is being hidden in plain sight.

It feels as though the same could apply to Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), yet she feels like a prime example of the film not knowing when to dig deeper. I’d argue the same for KiKi Layne’s brief appearance as Margaret, a friend of Alice’s. She has gone through a similar realization of things not all being right in her world. There is even more to say for her as a woman of color in a 50s suburb-like area, but less could actually be more in this instance, given how many issues I’ve already found in the basics of this story.

While there may be no shortage of talent in front of and behind the camera, Don’t Worry Darling is an unfortunate misfire. It’s not willing to make things any crazier than they could have been, instead relying on twists, turns, and ideas that come across as fairly rote. As a thriller made for an adult audience to watch on the big screen, I can understand how the rarity of these, at this time, should ideally make a film like this more valuable. However, only so much can be praised for a movie that puts up the façade of being ambitious yet still feels all too basic in its execution. No worries about not coming through here, but I can just say better luck next time.

Don’t Worry Darling opens in theaters on September 23, 2022.

4
Poor
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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