Movie review: ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ dazzling, but murky beneath the surface

There didn’t seem to be any reason for worry, darling, when it was announced that actress-director Olivia Wilde would follow up her effervescent debut feature “Booksmart” with the 1950s psychological thriller “Don’t Worry Darling,” starring Florence Pugh. Having established herself as a bold and unapologetically feminist new filmmaker to watch, Wilde and “Booksmart” collaborator Katie Silberman wrote the screenplay for “Don’t Worry Darling” based on a script by Carey and Shane Van Dyke, which appeared on the 2019 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

But then a major pop star (Harry Styles) replaced a troubled actor (Shia LaBoeuf) on set, and Wilde’s fiance (“Ted Lasso” star Jason Sudeikis) on her arm, and the film became a subject of gossipy speculation, which all climaxed in a gloriously glamorous red carpet cacophony of deliciously frivolous celebrity hubbub at the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.

Gemma Chan, from left, Harry Styles, Sydney Chandler, director Olivia Wilde, Chris Pine, Florence Pugh and Nick Kroll pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ during the 79th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

“Don’t Worry Darling” is a dizzyingly gorgeous and intoxicating project that combines “The Stepford Wives,” “Gaslight” and the “The Truman Show” into an aesthetically retro riff of modern social commentary. The ideas swirling in “Don’t Worry Darling” are indeed big, but they are also the film’s downfall. Wilde brandishes a sword of Betty Friedan-inspired feminist critique, but loses her tenuous grasp on this unwieldy tool, and rather than delivering an incisive blow to nostalgic misogyny, she slices the whole project to ribbons in front of our eyes, leaving us with a mess of pieces, unclear how to fit them all together.

Powerhouse rising star Pugh delivers a typically riveting performance as Alice, the young, randy wife of Jack (Styles), who wants nothing more than to vacuum their stunning midcentury modern home every day, and greet her hubby at the door with a cocktail, a hot meal and a willing body every night. The couple live on a picture-perfect cul-de-sac where lush green lawns abut the harsh desert (the film was shot in the architectural paradise of Palm Springs, California), and the wives wave goodbye to their husbands driving to work in candy-colored cars in a synchronized choreography every morning.

Choreography is a theme in “Don’t Worry Darling,” from the wives’ ballet classes, to the tap dance routine Jack displays during a wild big band party after receiving a promotion from his boss, Frank (Chris Pine), the mysterious figure who runs “The Victory Project,” where all the husbands work. They’re engineering something called “progressive materials,” about which the men are sworn to secrecy. Maybe it’s weapons, the wives wonder, blissfully unaware.

Dance is also a part of the disturbing visions that Alice starts to experience after her neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne) cracks up before her very eyes. Images of women performing 1930s Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers, their legs rotating hypnotically, tear a hole in the fabric of Alice’s sun-dappled existence.

“Don’t Worry Darling” seems to exaggeratedly waggle its eyebrows at the viewer in anticipation of revealing that Things Are Not What They Seem at The Victory Project. It’s so over the top that one starts to feel that the film better deliver something truly bonkers — or else.

It does, but the reveal of the secrets that lurk beneath this dazzling surface also reveals the cracks in Wilde’s own approach to the topic. It becomes clear that in reaching for something controversial and relevant, Wilde and Silberman just haven’t gone deep, or far enough. The characterizations and stylistic choices become inconsistent in the light of revelation, and as you unpack the story and attempt to put it back together, it’s obvious that in crafting this “feminist” parable, Wilde has tried to do it all, and in doing so, has defanged her own argument.

Pugh is an undeniable talent, and miraculously, this film does cement her movie star status. She runs laps around Styles, who is unequipped as an actor to match her screen charisma. When Pugh faces off with Pine, the energy crackles off the screen. Unfortunately, for her most emotional moments, she is saddled with Styles, who is not up to the task and miscast in the role.

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Harry Styles in a scene from “Don’t Worry Darling.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

The craft is also undeniable, the costumes, hair, makeup and production design offering lush eye candy (even if it’s a mishmash of eras, which ends up being kind of the point). It’s all captured by cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s heady, swirling, light-saturated lenses and soundtracked to a rhythmic, breathy score by John Powell that urges us along, creating a rather charged and hypnotic cinematic effect.

While what’s underneath the beautiful veneer of The Victory Project is dark, twisted and sinister, below the shiny, stylized surface of “Don’t Worry Darling,” there is just a jumble of provocative and ultimately incoherent ideas. The synapses are firing, they just fail to connect.

‘DON’T WORRY DARLING’

★★ (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for sexuality, violent content and language)

Running time: 2:02

How to watch: In theaters Friday