Throughout the story of the United States, there has often been called the ‘American Dream.’ Beyond the obvious rags-to-riches story, what is materially the American dream for the people who believe in it? A recurring image is that of the suburban house protected by the white fence, a lawn to mow and a happy family with children. A stereotype, yes, but a working and obsessing stereotype that has become engraved in people’s minds when it comes to imagining what life in suburban America is. What lengths are people willing to explore to pursue this dream?
Jack (Harry Styles) and Alice (Florence Pugh) Chambers are a happy 1950s married couple, they live in a California town called Victory, built and created by the company Jack works for, chaired by the mysterious Frank (Chris Pine). There, Alice has many friends: Bunny (director Olivia Wilde) is having the time of her life with her husband Dean (Nick Kroll) and their two children, and the same kind of life is led by the other wives in the neighborhood, with whom she spends time while the husbands are at work. It seems like the perfect life, if Alice didn’t have these sudden flashes before her eyes: what are they? What do they represent? And why is Margaret, one of the other wives, so upset that she wants to warn her friends of the dangers of Victory? Suspicion starts to take hold of Alice, pushing her to investigate. The chance arrives when a plane suddenly crashes on the outskirts of the town, right near the headquarters of the mysterious company: Alice decides that she wants to know more. A few hours later, she wakes up distraught and confused in her own home. What happened to her? What are the people in the town hiding? Is her husband involved? Her pursuit of the truth starts, pushing her into a dangerous, scary and violent territory.
We know that the publicity around this movie has completely supplanted the talk about the actual movie. We have no idea whether Florence Pugh was actually frustrated at the director’s relationship with Harry Styles and clashed with her, or whether Shia Labeouf was actually fired or just made the decision to quit the film. Does it matter in the context of a film review? It potentially might, if the film’s end results are messy as Don’t Worry Darling. Fresh off the success of her debut feature Booksmart, Olivia Wilde opted for a very ambitious and complex sophomore picture, one that blends multiple genres with a strong underlying social commentary. The effort is laudable, we need more bold directors, but Wilde’s execution is terribly off the mark. Don’t Worry Darling is, let’s say, a spectacular disaster. It can sometimes be entertaining for the right reasons, but for most of the time it is entertaining for all the wrong reasons. So bad it’s good? That’s a fitting definition. It is derivative: taking a bunch of ideas from The Stepford Wives, The Matrix, The Truman Show, or Philip K. Dick doesn’t make a great film if you cannot handle them. It is confusing: the tonal shifts in the film are jarring, going from character study to sci-fi drama to action movies doesn’t help if there is not a cohesive idea behind the project. It is poorly written: while some of its ideas are interesting, the script feels very thin, with underwritten characters and plot holes. It is overdirected: there is the palpable feeling that director Wilde doesn’t really know how to tell this story, but at the same time she makes her presence strangely overbearing, as if proving that directing an action scene or a big, verbal confrontation could make a film great. This way, the potentially interesting commentary about the role of women in society, about the American dream, feels cheap.
Despite the ongoing controversy about her relationship with director Wilde, Florence Pugh gives a genuinely good performance, elevating a very underwritten character; Chris Pine is solid as the eerily menacing Frank, while Kiki Layne and Gemma Chan are wasted in their roles. One of the problems of the film too is, unfortunately, Harry Styles: he’s still not able to translate his on-stage charisma into a believable cinematic figure, and his lack of chemistry with Pugh very much diminishes the central impact that this duo should have in the movie.
Watching Don’t Worry Darling made me feel like I was witnessing a train crash, something that makes you morbidly curious while at the same time acknowledging its disaster.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Warner Bros will release Don’t Worry Darling only in theaters on September 23.