Talking about films that crashed on the rocks of high expectations, here’s Don’t Worry Darling, a Stepford Wives/Total Recall hybrid hotly anticipated because it was a) the directorial follow-up to Booksmart for Olivia Wilde, b) because it starred Florence Pugh, whose career since debuting in Carol Morley’s Falling in 2014 has been a series of triumphs and c) because it gave a meaty role to Harry Styles, he of swoonsome pop-starriness.
It’s the film that crashed twice, in fact, the second calamity coming as stories started to circulate about bad blood on set – over Shia Labeouf (fired), between Wilde and Pugh (over Styles), and most notoriously over Chris Pine and Styles and the most probably fictitious “Spitgate” incident, not to mention the acrimonious collapse of Wilde’s relationship off-screen with Jason Sudeikis.
Pugh plays Alice, a woman in a Tupperware-coloured idealised 1950s life of men who work and women who keep house. At the end of each day the menfolk all return at the same time from their high-powered, mysterious jobs at the Victory Corporation, to be greeted by a loyal wife and a cold cocktail. Alice is in wonderland, or so she is constantly being told by Bunny (Olivia Wilde) and the other wives around her, a message reinforced by the daily homilies preached over the radio.
The story of Don’t Worry Darling is of a woman on a journey, discovering that this too-perfect white-sliced town isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, nor is Frank, nor is her husband, and that her vague feelings of disquiet are grounded in something tangible. There is another world out there somewhere, one in which she is more than just a loyal wife. This is the Total Recall bit.
A film in dialogue with the ideas of Jordan Peterson is a rare thing but that’s what this is. For those who don’t know him, he’s the Canadian academic with a second career as an inspirational speaker/self-help guru whose message could be simplistically reduced to – men are from order; women are from chaos. In Don’t Worry Darling Chris Pine plays the Peterson avatar, Frank, the guy who owns/runs the Victory Corporation and by extension everyone in his company town. He’s a visionary whose town works like clockwork because everyone in it is a gendered cog. One of the film’s joys is watching Pine’s performance as the self-regarding Frank, Pine giving it about 50 percent of Jack Nicholson as this big cheese whose shit-eating grin surely hints at something sinister.
Booksmart was a dialogue-driven film and Olivia Wilde was wise enough to stay directorially out of the way of the script and her stars. Here there’s more going on visually and Wilde is more off the leash. Aided by DP Matthew Libatique and production designer Katie Byron she delivers a movie that’s bright, sharp and chockful of mid-century-modern design. On top of this antiseptic, faintly Truman Show world Wilde layers flights of fancy – a Busby Berkeley dance number here, a psychedelic cutaway there.
This is a movie with baggage. One of those bags is the critical consense about Harry Styles’s acting – no good, or so the groupthink line goes. You can find fault if you’re determined to build a case, but the main thing about acting is to be over the bad acting/good acting threshold, which Styles is, only having the odd moment when the emotions get flowing and voices are raised.
Pugh, excellent as ever. Pine, already discusssed. Wilde, not on screen enough to make a difference.
There’s nothing wrong with this film that couldn’t be fixed by the realisation going in that it’s nowhere near as groundbreaking as its length and lavish production values suggest it thinks it is. In the days of the B movie this would have made a very fine one, but then in the days of the B movie this would have come in at least half an hour shorter.
Don’t Worry Darling – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023