'Don't Worry Darling': A Beautiful Mess
The behind-the-scenes drama surrounding Don't Worry Darling has been almost inescapable over the past few months. From rumors of clashes between Olivia Wilde and Florence Pugh, to the dissolution of Wilde's marriage to Jason Sudeikis after she became romantically involved with Harry Styles, to Styles allegedly spitting on Chris Pine's leg at the Venice Film Festival, there has been much discussion surrounding just what happened during the making of this film. Add in the fact that this is Wilde's follow-up to her acclaimed directorial debut, Booksmart, so there was also a fair amount of hype surrounding the film. It's clear that Wilde went into this film wanting to prove herself even further, and show just what she can do with a bigger budget. Between all the discourse and hype around the film, it's fair to say that a lot of people have high expectations. I personally was intrigued by the drama around it, and I was curious to see what Wilde would deliver with her sophomore feature. It's hard not to have these things in mind while watching the film, which is a bit of a disservice to it. It basically sets up the film for disappointment, mainly due to how hollow it ends up being. It sets its sights for the moon, but it doesn't even enter the stratosphere. On paper, this film should have worked much better, but it fumbles the execution. And yet, I didn't hate this film. I wouldn't even say that I disliked it. It is quite flawed, and the ideas it explores get a bit muddled over the runtime, but it is a fascinating effort from Olivia Wilde, and is bolstered by its impressive visuals and an excellent lead performance from Florence Pugh.
The film is set in an idyllic community called Victory in the 1950s, which is owned by a mysterious company that employs the men that live there. While the men go off to work, the women stay home to cook and clean, and spend their free time doing activities such as swimming, shopping, and dancing. Alice (played by Florence Pugh) enjoys her life in Victory, but when she starts to notice some cracks in the town's facade, she starts to lose her sanity, and tries to discover what secrets are lurking under the surface.
The film has drawn comparisons to The Stepford Wives and The Truman Show, which isn't too far off. So much of it deals with questioning reality and the darker side of suburban life, which aren't new concepts, but it does have some parallels to our current social climate. The film might not be as outwardly feminist as it has been hyped up to be, but it is still an interesting commentary on traditionalism, gender roles, and how women are viewed in today's society. The film also explores the effects that incel culture has had on our world, and some of the possible implications that recent sociopolitical trends and events might have on our future. There are a lot of important ideas and statements that the film wants to make, and sometimes they shine through to make some cogent points. Unfortunately, the film doesn't always execute these ideas all that well, and they tend to come across incoherently for the most part. A lot of this is due to the script, which is rather shallow across the board. This is mainly in terms of its narrative, which borrows quite a bit from other films. It makes an effort to stand out, but it does feel a bit derivative in places.
It doesn't help that it hits some predictable beats, and that it moves at a rather slow pace for most of the film. I have to applaud the film for taking a big swing with its third act, even if it doesn't fully gel with the rest of the film. Without spoiling anything, the big twist of the film is revealed in such a jarring and unexpected way that most viewers will likely walk away from it saying that its too ridiculous. I don't necessarily disagree, but it doesn't feel too far off from some of what the film is commenting on. It all boils down to the execution of the twist, which is just such a sudden turn that it feels disorienting. I appreciate the ambition, but at the same time, I wish the film took more big swings like this. It feels so out of place in the grand scheme of everything, which robs it of its impact. If the film was a little more willing to experiment with certain things, it might have worked a little better, but as is, it is a bit strange. I personally didn't mind the twist too much in the context of the narrative, but it just feels out of left field in terms of execution. The film also has a rather abrupt ending that some might find frustrating. I think it could have used a stronger note to end on, but I wasn't too mad at it.
When I saw Booksmart back in 2019, I was pleasantly surprised by Olivia Wilde's direction, and felt that she showed a lot of potential behind the camera. Don't Worry Darling might not be the type of film I expected her to make next, but I can understand why she chose it. While the script clearly connected with her, this film also gives her the chance to aim for the skies and make something bigger and more conceptual than her debut. It's a noble effort, but Wilde's direction is let down a little by the film's script. She has some decent instincts, especially when it comes to where to put the camera and in crafting a distinct look and feel for the film, but the film ends up being more style over substance. Of course, with the substance in question being a bit sub-par, as discussed above, this isn't necessarily too shocking. In general, it feels like Wilde's direction is a bit unfocused in certain stretches of the film, and one can't help but wonder if the troublesome production is to blame for this. It's also quite possible that she just bit off more than she could chew with this film, and that she might still have some growing to do as a filmmaker. Regardless, she does do a decent job overall, but this is definitely more of a sophomore slump for her.
At least the film looks incredible, largely thanks to Matthew Libatique's spectacular cinematography and the immaculate production design. Libatique is one of our finest living cinematographers, and with this film, he continues to maintain his great track record. The film has a stunning look to it, and the way he utilizes sunlight, color, and shadows is quite impressive. It reeled me in for most of the film, and is some of the most beautiful camerawork I've seen this year. As for the production design, it captures specific details of the 1950s so well, but it is at its best when it creates something unique within this aesthetic. The design for the headquarters of the company is especially fascinating, and the houses are so meticulously crafted to reflect the suburban homes of the era. These might be the strongest aspects of the whole film, and help make up for some of its shortcomings.
The film's true saving grace, however, is Florence Pugh, who is absolutely incredible here. It's no secret that Pugh is an immensely talented actor, and she continues to prove that in this film. She is so good at portraying characters who are going through intensely emotional situations, and since that is a major part of her character here, it goes without saying that she nails this part of the performance. She embodies the character of Alice effortlessly, and she is able to show a great deal of her range over the course of the film. It might not be my favorite performance of hers, but it is still quite excellent. Another standout is Chris Pine, who plays Frank, the head of the company that owns Victory. He has a charming sensibility to him, but you can tell that something is a little off with him. He has an almost cult leader-y vibe to him, mainly in terms of how magnetic he is when he's on screen. His scenes with Pugh are absolutely fantastic, and their dynamic together made me wish they had more scenes together. The supporting cast is pretty good, but they do feel somewhat wasted. Olivia Wilde isn't half bad as Bunny, one of the other housewives at Victory, and she also plays off of Pugh nicely. Kiki Layne is good as well, but she is so underused. Her character feels more like a prop, but this is due to the script and not her. Some of the other actors, specifically Kate Berlant, Timothy Simons, and Nick Kroll are pretty good in their limited screentime, and they fit into the world of the film better than I was expecting.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Harry Styles, who gives a confoundingly bad performance here. It is not quite as bad as some have been letting on, but he still feels miscast. On paper, casting one of the world's most charismatic pop stars in the role of Jack, Alice's successful and charming husband makes sense, but Styles is not that strong of an actor. This is only magnified by the fact that he is acting opposite Florence Pugh, which doesn't do him any favors. Pugh acts circles around him, which is just disappointing. He feels so lifeless in many of the scenes, and even when he gets the chance to let loose, it feels a little over the top. I was hoping he wouldn't be too bad, especially since I thought he was alright in 2017's Dunkirk, but he just doesn't have what this role is asking of him. Originally, Shia LaBeouf was cast as Jack, but his volatile behavior caused him to leave the project. One would think that they would have replaced him with an actor who has a similar screen presence (or at least one who actually has a screen presence), but I can understand why they went with Styles given how big of a star he is. However, his performance is easily the worst of the whole film, and is majorly disappointing.
Don't Worry Darling is definitely a mess, but it is at least an interesting one. The script drags it down quite a bit, but it has some great performances and gorgeous visuals to pick up some of the slack. Some of its larger points get lost in the mix, but the ones that do come through are rather poignant. All of the talk surrounding the film's behind-the-scenes drama will definitely cast a cloud over it, as it's hard not to think about it while watching it. I'm sure that this, combined with the hype will play a big role in how people respond to it, as it might disappoint some viewers. I was certainly disappointed in specific aspects, but I also liked certain parts of it quite a bit. It has some substantial flaws, but what it does well, it does really well. I'll be curious to see how this film ages, as it seems slightly prescient in some of its observations. Time will tell if that's the case, but I can see this potentially getting some sort of reevaluation in the future. Personally, I wouldn't mind giving this another watch sometime down the road to see if that might change my opinion on it one way or another. I definitely think that this is a film that a lot of people will have strong reactions toward, but I am more closer to the middle on this one. I skew more positive, but I'm not necessarily rushing to call this a masterpiece. I'm sure that many will be disappointed, and will be quick to criticize its glaring issues, but I personally don't think that it's all that bad. It is deeply flawed for sure, but it is at least a fascinating watch. It's highly possible that the film will be remembered more for the drama that surrounded its production than for anything that happens in the film itself. But given the cultural impact that this film has had already, I think that there is potential for the film to have an interesting legacy. It may not be the most positive one, but regardless, I certainly think that there may be more conversations to be had about the film. It's not a perfect film by any means, but it's at least a film that will have people talking, even if the conversation eventually drifts to whether or not Harry Styles spat on Chris Pine at the Venice Film Festival.