Don’t Worry Darling Review: Olivia Wilde’s Second Directorial Feature is a Step Down from Booksmart
It’s quite ironic that early on in Olivia Wilde’s second directorial feature, Don’t Worry Darling, Chris Pine’s character asks the question: What gets in the way of progress? The answer is chaos; which is also the perfect word to sum up the press tour for this film. Wilde’s directing ability shows even more confidence than Booksmart — one of my favorite films ever — but the story choices and rhetoric leave plenty to be desired.
Alice (Florence Pugh) is living a fabulous life of a housewife in a neighborhood eerily reminiscent of “Doom Town” from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. She spends her days in her cookie-cutter world cleaning the house, taking dance classes and gossiping with the other neighborhood gals before her husband Jack (Harry Styles) gets home. Alice and Jack’s relationship is going smoothly to the point that Bunny (Wilde), Alice’s best friend and wife of Bill (Nick Kroll), says that they’re in a “perpetual honeymoon.”
My college roommate used to tell some metaphor that I’m not entirely sure was real. But it went something like this: if a hamster is in a box, that’s the reality it knows and it has no idea of the potential of the outside world if it never leaves the box. Alice is that hamster — just exchange the box for a 1950s-style house — whose Barbie world fantasy life begins to show chinks in the armor when Alice’s curiosity gets the best of her. The walls begin closing in (literally) with the further she digs.
The jump from a coming-of-age high school flick like Booksmart — oozing with feel-good vibes — to this (somewhat erotic) psychological thriller is a major shift, no doubt about it. Don’t Worry Darling looks great and is enhanced by Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and the film’s production design. Be that as it may, Wilde’s got a firm handle behind the camera, and the jump to a project with the scale of Don’t Worry Darling didn’t seem to rattle her. Like the film or not, you have to acknowledge Wilde’s ability to direct and I’ll continue to anticipate all of her future directorial efforts.
“Expect disappointment and never be disappointed,” said Zendaya’s MJ in Spider-Man: No Way Home. I cite that quote often when writing about films, but it’s oh so applicable to Don’t Worry Darling. It would’ve been unreasonable to expect another cinematic masterpiece that reset the landscape for a genre as her directorial debut did, but there’s so much untapped potential in Don’t Worry Darling — it’s an offense that leaves points on the field.
Wilde once again teamed with Katie Silberman who penned Booksmart and will close out her initial triplet of films with Wilde by writing the upcoming Spider-Woman film with her and they even have another film planned after that. The duo clearly have a good rapport that works, but Silberman writes herself into a corner with Don’t Worry Darling. The duo is trying to balance this physiological thriller and the twists and turns that come with that while updating it with anti-misogyny rhetoric. I’ve got no issues with films handling the topics that Don’t Worry Darling does, but what are they really trying to say? Is this Alice’s journey to fulfillment? Is it about her pleasure?
The film also has major pacing issues. The first 20 minutes gripped me and I was in for this ride. The next hour is so dull and can be summed up as Alice being gaslit. Then, after a third act crescendo, the film just ends. I think I understood the sort of ambiguous, “artsy” ending that Wilde was going for. Unfortunately, the story has so many holes that even Flex Seal couldn’t save this sinking ship, making that ending feel abrupt instead of a bookend of a story.
Yes, I know that Alice being gaslit is the point of the film, but it’s not enhancing the claustrophobia that Alice is supposed to be feeling. It picks up and shows some signs of life in for a brief moment in the last bit of the second act before it begins rushing to its climax. And it’s a shame because there’s already something inherently creepy about the town, the people in it and their fearless leader, yet Don’t Worry Darling prioritizes fulfilling the need to be one step ahead of its audience. It feels like a Jordan Peele film with half of the nuance. Don’t Worry Darling faces the opposite issue of Blonde — which suffered from the inherent male gaze that comes with a male director — in that its thriller elements could’ve been in better hands. I’m not going to question Wilde on the feminism side of things, but considering most of Don’t Worry Darling is a thriller, it’s safe to say that those aspects of the film felt Peele-like and to that end, I think the story would’ve been better under his direction.
And again, I am not a woman and cannot speak on the idea of female pleasure, but there was a lot of talk about elevating the standards of sex in film and yet, it never feels like Don’t Worry Darling really dives into that. Do we see Styles go down on Pugh a number of times? Sure, but I’m pretty sure Deep Water featured just as many comparable scenes. For a story that seems to want to talk about the emancipation of Alice, it fails Pugh and the character of Alice, which seems troubling considering this is where Wilde’s direction and Wilberman’s writing should shine.
Pugh has yet to give a bad performance — even despite how hard she tried by starring in Black Widow — and that streak continues here. She certainly acts circles around Styles, especially when the “boy who cried wolf” portion of the story starts taking shape. While I don’t want to acknowledge the drama that occurred on set, or at least was rumored to have occurred, if even a fraction of the tension between Pugh and Wilde was true, the former deserves all the more credit for her performance. For starters, the pair play best friends in the film, and both do so convincingly. Second, Pugh is the emotional vehicle of the film and gives a great performance in a mediocre film.
I also don’t want to fully dismiss Styles — who’s fine in the film. Yes, that clip where he goes from British to Brooklyn may make you do a spit-take and it’s not much better in the context of the film, but aside from that moment, he never sticks out like a sore thumb or looks out of place. He’s proven that he can hang in the big leagues, maybe just not Pugh’s league. His performance is far and away better than expected, which, to be fair, is not a high bar considering the only other film of his that I’ve seen is Dunkirk and I couldn’t even tell you the part he plays in that film. Hopefully, Mr. Policeman continues to showcase his ability in a positive light.
As he looked during the press tour, Pine is simply there in Don’t Worry Darling. He’s your standard “fearless leader” of a shady tech company with his only unique character trait being his amusement of watching Alice desperately try to piece everything together. Pine’s not bad, per se, he just seems uninterested and soulless in the scenes he was in — you would’ve thought that we was called back to play Steve Trevor again — and perhaps he foresaw the trainwreck that the promotion of this film would be. If you would’ve told me Styles outperforms Pine six months ago, I would’ve called you crazy, frankly. Here we are.
I think the biggest issue with Frank (Chris Pine) is that there’s a lot of mystique with very little background. Now, it’s a tricky balance as you don’t want to show too much behind the curtain, but the lack of depth behind Pine’s sinister looks makes you question if there really is anything further to explore. Perhaps the writers didn’t have much else written for this character and this is the end result. In either case, Pine gets more grace for being dealt a bad hand.
The rest of the cast is used so sparingly that they’re hardly worth a mention. Kroll is on a roll in the early scenes but is pushed into the background rather quickly. Perhaps this is a metaphor for distant men, or I’m just grasping at straws while trying to make this make sense. Gemma Chan places the wife of Frank, Shelley, but aside from one little outburst her character has, she’s nowhere to be found which makes her motives during the last act even stranger. Ironically, it’s Wilde that stands out the most. Her character becomes frustrating by the end because you’ll likely guess the role she plays. Plus, I feel like one of the TV spots for the film that I saw in passing reveals her biggest line in the film.
Without spoiling it, Don’t Worry Darling commits the cardinal sin of a thriller and that is having a condescending twist. I haven’t seen a single trailer in full for the film and was about 90% accurate on my prediction going in. I assume that if you have seen the marketing, it’s even more obvious. I won’t name the film, but the twist was as impactful as a similar one in a horror film from the fall of 2020 starring Janelle Monáe.
I will still defend Wilde tooth and nail because I believe in her ability. I think that her issue with Don’t Worry Darling was trying to elevate it beyond a story similar to that of the likes of The Truman Show and, as Supes wonderfully put it, WandaVision. Booksmart remains the better film by leaps and bounds and instead of going bigger with each project, Wilde should consider sticking with small, intimate films. The ambition is admirable, she just bit off more than she could chew. I wanted to love Don’t Worry Darling, yet for the first time in a long time, I felt ambivalent once the credits rolled. It took me two or three days to process and conclude whether or not I actually liked or disliked the film — which is weird. Like the recent A24 movie Funny Pages — which I hardly enjoyed — I want people to see Don’t Worry Darling because at least it’s original and not an overly self-referential Spider-Man movie that bakes two decades of nostalgia into its story. Don’t Worry Darling does have the benefit of a built-in fanbase of its all-star castmembers and the circus that the press tour has been, but there are few filmmakers who make original stories (making Wilde’s decision to join the corporate system and helm a Spider-Woman film even more disappointing). I guess come for the cast, stay for the “mystery” and leave wishing you had just watched the Harry Styles spit video on loop instead.
Don’t Worry Darling had its world premiere at the 79th Venice Film Festival on September 5 and will be released in theaters by Warner Bros. on September 23.