Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” takes a concept and plot that’s not exactly new to Hollywood (I’m of course referring to the two filmic adaptations of Ira Levin’s 1972 feminist horror novel “The Stepford Wives”) and delivers something that has moments of style and fun but doesn’t really know what it’s trying to be or what point it’s trying to make and not even Florence Pugh’s admirable efforts can save it from derailing as it did.
As I said, the plot of this film is simply a re-interpretation of “The Stepford Wives”. Alice Chambers (Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles) live in the idyllic 1950s-styled neighbourhood of Victory, California. Every morning, the men of the town drive off in unison in their Caddilacs to work for the mysterious “Victory Project” while their perky, sex kitten wives stay at home to tend to the chores, drink by the pool with the other women and prepare sumptuous steaks for when their hubbies return home, where they are waiting for them with a martini and a push up bra at the front door. Alice senses something isn’t quite right though, and isn’t as quick to dismiss her friend Margaret’s seemingly paranoid and deluded warnings about the Victory Project as the rest of the town is. What is it that the men of the town are hiding? What is actually going on at the ‘Victory Project” and who really is Frank (Chris Pine), their charismatic leader?
First and foremost, Florence Pugh is a phenomenal actress. She just is, and it won’t be long before she has an Oscar of her own. It’s obvious that she’s doing the best with what she’s given here, and Wilde makes the sensible decision to keep the camera on Pugh as often as possible. Unfortunately though, if a more mediocre actress had been cast in the lead role, it wouldn’t have been so obvious how meandering and clunky the rest of the film is. Pugh manages to dredge out some suspense and humour out of her performance, but is largely wasted and at times you can almost sense her frustration with this shallow script and banal direction. Harry Styles is irritating and distracting in a role that really should have been forgettable, although it didn’t help that every time he came on the screen the throngs of teenage girls in the audience either laughed or cheered. There’s one scene where he has long hair and they lost their freaking minds.
The initial depiction of the township of Victory is handled well, with a bright pastel aesthetic and some cool synchronised sequences of the women cleaning their houses and all waving goodbye to their suit and tie wearing hubbies. The thing is though, this is the easy part. The 2004 version of “The Stepford Wives” with Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler did the same thing, with rows and rows of impeccable houses and women with perfectly starched skirts and hypnotic smiles. At least with this interpretation it was easy enough for us an audience to sense that there’s something sinister underlying in the community (in that case, that the women had been equipped with various chips to become Betty Crocker-esque robots). In “Darling”, the women just seem like ordinary women who have made the choice to be stay at home wives. Alice cracking some eggs to find they’re empty inside just doesn’t seem to have the same kick as a room full of perky blondes in perfect make up taking part in a series of exercise routines based on household appliances. And it’s not that Wilde has necessarily done the wrong thing by directing the film as a horror, because in the right hands it absolutely could have worked. And if it is supposed to be a horror, why was none of it even remotely scary? The entire film is a mismatched hack job with elements of different genres, none of which really land or are properly developed so what results is a confusing mug of incredibly weak and lukewarm tea. The 1972 version of “The Stepford Wives” isn’t a great film, but it sure is chilling, and shows how this type of material is prime for a more sinister take.
I won’t talk about the film’s conclusion, because some people might enjoy it and discussing it here would ruin the (albeit fairly lame) twist. I will say though, once the reality of the world of “Victory” is revealed, it comes as more of a surprise because it doesn’t make sense for the rest of the film. None of the motivations of the characters are properly revealed and what was especially disappointing was that we never really see how the other couples ended up there or even how the wicked Frank managed to pull off what he did, or why. So many questions go unanswered, and rather than feeling gratified that the antagonists get what’s coming to them, the audience is left bewildered and trying to make sense of the tenuous connections and ham fisted conclusions that Wilde is trying to inflict upon us.
I think the biggest problem is that Wilde has driven the entire film around one or two pretty weak premises about “incel” culture and some blatantly false understandings of the teachings of Jordan Peterson. She’s not sure what the point is that she’s trying to make, and tries to distract the audience with some heavily stylised and artsy flourishes that aren’t remarkably effective on initial glance and quickly become heavy handed. “Don’t Worry Darling” is like watching someone trying to light a fire with a couple of dim sparks in the middle of a thunderstorm; the sparks are promising in the fleeting moments that we can see them, but are soon snuffed out and forgotten in the deluge.
By Jock Lehman