“Strong drinks, delicious food, cool décor, good tunes on the hi-fi over there. This is a fun party. I’m having a great time. This is a really nice place. Thanks for inviting me. Sorry, have I seen what? Sorry, this music is really loud and there are some … booming noises outside? Oh, have I seen Black Mirror? Uh, yeah, a few episodes. It’s pretty good. Are you a fan, too?”
60 MINUTES LATER
“Neat. Yeah. Um, sorry. I’ve gotta go. Early bird and the worm, you know. But, uh, yeah, yeah, I’ll let you know what I think of Bandersnatch although I feel like I already watched all of the versions after talking to you. Yep. Yeah. No, I’ve really gotta go. Yeah. Have a good one.”
With creamy, dreamy cinematography from Matthew Libatique and luxuriously detailed mid-century modern production design from Katie Byron, Don’t Worry Darling certainly looks the part of a 1950s paradise you won’t want to depart. Pity that a prologue scene — in which the allegorically named Alice (Florence Pugh) spins her convertible car in circles — foreshadows the wheel-spinning ways of the latest film from director-actress Olivia Wilde, who tries her hand at something far darker than 2019’s Booksmart.
Is it a spoiler to mention the series above? Not really. There’s clearly some sort of trouble brewing in Victory, a California community at the foothold of the mountains in which Alice and her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), have set up shop. Jack is an up-and-coming executive for the Victory Project, a scientific experiment on the edge of town where, outside of the occasional booming noises, everything is off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush. What does Alice do? Like all the other dutiful housewives in her neighborhood (Wilde, Kate Berlant and Sydney Chandler), she stays home to clean, cook and charge fancy housewares and haute couture to the Victory Project’s account. It’s a domestic blissful existence powered by a sex life in which Jack often, as it were, chooses dessert before dinner.
But something is clearly troubling their neighbor Margaret (KiKi Layne), who balks at the backyard-party bluster spewed by Frank (Chris Pine), the Victory Project’s very charismatic and chatty leader. After tragedy strikes and Alice’s inquiries are tut-tutted, she begins to experience disturbing visions of facially deformed dancers and sees crashing planes that concern no one else. Just what are Jack, Frank and the men of Victory doing up there in the mountains all day?
Don’t Worry Darling delivers a definitive answer but does so in a way that establishes exclusive concern only for the torque of its twists and not what those twists might say about the world in which we live. There are weak feints toward that, but they’re hurled at Howitzer force along with a third-act flurry of narratively convenient details. As written by Katie Silberman (with a story credit by Carey and Shane Van Dyke), the idea doesn’t stand up to even five seconds of modest scrutiny. Prioritizing twists and terror over commentary and poignancy may have worked for a 90-minute corker, but it ultimately undoes the spell of a movie that runs over two hours.
Up to that point, a couple of crucial casting choices keep it afloat, along with John Powell’s unsettling score of disembodied vocals and tetchy, warbling chords. Pugh delivers yeowoman miracles in a part that essentially asks her to alternate bliss and doubt throughout. The way in which she finds nuance in that shallow assignment establishes herself as a leading woman able to enliven even the most enervated narrative. You’ll wish the movie gave her more opportunities to go toe-to-toe with Pine’s suave, string-pulling sonofabitch, whose blathering-broheim bromides sport a sinister cadence as they cast a hefty hex. As for Styles, well … he’s a handsome guy but this casting is not the same as it was when Shia LaBeouf was originally set for the part of Jack. Then again, given the movie’s resolution, LaBeouf’s presence alone would have proven more provocative than the party Wilde and company want to throw — a posh feast for the eyes you’ll be eager to leave after an hour.