'Don't Worry Darling' review: At least Florence Pugh sparkles in buzzy but flat retro thriller
“Don’t Worry Darling” has certainly been central to a litany of drama before its release. Oral sex scenes in the movie trailer. The director getting hit with legal papers onstage at CinemaCon. Said director reportedly dating one of her stars and maybe feuding with the other. A purportedly fired actor hitting back at the filmmaker.
All that scandalous hubbub is more scintillating than what actually happens onscreen in the twisty and visually striking but fairly flat psychological thriller.
Director Olivia Wilde pulled off a fantastic debut with the excellent coming-of-age film “Booksmart” but "Don't Worry Darling," her second outing with writer Katie Silberman, doesn’t have the same spark. Starring Florence Pugh and pop star Harry Styles, Wilde's follow-up film (★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Sept. 23) imagines an idyllic (at least for the 1950s-loving crowd) community where there’s something sinister going on underneath the happy-shirt exterior. And while there’s a definite “The Stepford Wives” sort of vibe, the narrative themes (which do lean timely) lack subtlety and nuance.
'Really vicious':Olivia Wilde breaks silence on custody documents from Jason Sudeikis
Thankfully, Pugh keeps it watchable as a young married woman trying to keep her sanity amidst a ton of gaslighting and constant doo-wop songs.
Alice (Pugh) and Jack (pop star Harry Styles) live a regular, mostly vanilla life. Like all the other dudes in their cul-de-sac, Jack zooms off after morning breakfast to his secretive engineering job for the Victory Project – the mysterious company that’s given them a home in the desert filled with white picket fences and golden oldies. The housewives, including Alice’s next-door neighbor Bunny (Wilde), gossip when the men leave and Alice begins her usual day of cleaning the entire house, until Jack gets home and they’re all over each other.
But the overly attentive Alice begins to wonder if the Victory existence is all it’s cracked up to be – and not just because she breaks eggs that weirdly have nothing inside them. She begins to have strange blackouts, nightmares and visions, like of showgirls doing a Bob Fosse routine from hell. In addition, her friend Margaret (KiKi Layne) has become persona non grata after venturing where she shouldn’t have gone and seeing something she shouldn’t have seen.
'Don't Worry Darling':Olivia Wilde says Harry Styles is 'a revelation' in sexy thriller
Jack tries to maintain the household status quo, especially when his beloved boss Frank (Chris Pine in full-on suave mode) taps him for a new promotion. Alice keeps asking questions in a place that demands unwavering loyalty, though, which soon puts her under Frank’s watchful eye.
Wilde has meticulously crafted a retro landscape that’s both familiar and nostalgic but also extremely unnerving in its too-clean facade, while at the same time successfully creating an inner, “Get Out”-inspired horror show for Alice, where the walls quite literally close in on her. There’s also a great chase with vintage cars that lends a “Mad Max”-meets-“North by Northwest” flair to the mind-bending narrative. However, those anticipating an erotic thriller need to temper sexpectations: There are only a couple of love scenes and neither are what you would call torrid. (When Alice launches a roast off the dinner table for a little sh-boom sh-boom and some rama lama ding-dong with Jack, it leans more humorous than hot.)
Shia LaBeouf:Actor denies Olivia Wilde firing him from 'Don't Worry Darling' for 'combative' process
Pugh, like she’s done with “Black Widow,” “Midsommar” and others, continues to make everything she’s in better – and, boy howdy, it’s needed here as the plot grows more convoluted. She takes Alice from ever-doting to paranoid conspiracy theorist and back again, making both happiness and terror feel impressively authentic in a waxwork world.
Styles has already taken (warranted) grief for an accent that’s all over the place, and his Jack is also a bit of a nonfactor for much of the runtime, though he gets more to do after the Big Reveal. (If you're paying attention, it’s not that hard to figure out what exactly is happening.) The lack of chemistry between Pugh and Styles is another disconnect – her dynamic with Pine, albeit antagonistic, is far more effective and not explored nearly enough.
At a particularly tense dinner party, Frank belittles Alice by saying she’s the “challenge” he’s been looking for but ultimately she’s disappointed him. Unfortunately, the same can be said of “Darling,” an ambitious meal with some key ingredients that just feels undercooked.
Movies to watch Labor Day weekend:Stream 'Honk for Jesus,' revisit 'Spider-Man' and more