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NOC Review: ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ is Not That Bad

I need to get something off my chest. We’ve gotten to a point where behind the scenes drama that has absolutely nothing to do with narrative, character, acting, etc. is affecting audience perceptions of movies, without audiences actually bothering to see a movie.

And it’s honestly a real pity, because the fundamentals of storytelling — what we should focus on when we watch movies — are being lost to gullibility about tabloid rubbish and trashy clickbait material. And the truth is, as harsh as the universe is being on Don’t Worry Darling for ridiculous reasons, it doesn’t really deserve it.

As a movie, is it great? Or even on par with director Olivia Wilde’s previous effort, Booksmart, in quality? Absolutely not. But it’s not as if it’s some horrendous Razzie-worthy movie that deserves hate just because Twitter pretended Harry Styles spit on Chris Pine (for the record, he didn’t). It’s fine. Nothing more. Nothing less.

The movie is about the picture-perfect relationship between Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles) as they live in the picture-perfect Nuclear Family inspired suburbs of Victory, CA. Jack and all of the men in the community work for the mysterious Victory Project and its leader, the charismatic and mysterious Frank. They go off to work, and leave the women at home to shop, clean, and cook. When one of Alice’s friends starts acting weird and questioning the Victory Project, Alice too starts having weird visions and urges that help her determine that something is indeed wrong with Victory, Frank, Jack, and their picture-perfect lifestyle. And sets off on a mission to get to the bottom of it.

Now that that’s out of the way, the truth about the film, strictly as a film, is that it should have been better. It could have been better. Derivative or not, the concept is fun enough that you could do some entertaining stuff with it. Wilde is a strong visual director with a willingness to experiment. And when your cast includes Oscar nominee Florence Pugh, Chris Pine, Harry Styles, and Gemma Chan. But ultimately, in something of a catch-22 situation, the film’s own ambition makes it tedious, and the lack of narrative payoff makes it feel like it settles for “just okay” by the end of it.

What do I mean by that? I mean the screenplay and its execution. That’s what weighs this film down. Don’t Worry Darling spends 2/3 of its runtime asking questions and introducing vague concepts with very little hints about what’s going on. And by the time it decides to answer the questions, you just don’t care much anymore. Even if you do, it only ends up answering the bare minimum amount of the questions necessary to ensure the story makes sense. And that might be fine enough for you to feel a sense of closure with the film. But you also end up dissatisfied and apathetic. When you think about modern cinematic classics built on intrigue, like The Matrix or Inception, the mystery pulls the audience in, the answers are given to you at an appropriate time, and the audience can spend the rest of the movie enjoying the action. But when you take on the narrative debt Don’t Worry Darling sets up… and sets up… and sets up… the pay off better be mind-blowingly good. And it’s not. Meaning everything you endured just wasn’t worth it. Part of that is the overblown screenplay. The other is Wilde’s proclivity to not pull the trigger on the answers sooner. She manages to pepper in hints that mean nothing throughout the film. But she could have given us a clearer picture sooner rather than drag things out and leave us unsatisfied.

That being said, despite being tedious, it’s still entertaining. Yes, that sounds weird. But I think it’s a combination of Wilde’s creepy visuals and ambiance, and the totally committed performance of Pugh make it fun. Pugh turns Alice into an engaging character. She’s smart, resourceful, and strong. And when you begin to learn more and more about her as the onion peels back, the more you like her. She’s the only person in the film worth rooting for, and when she goes head to head with Chris Pine, it becomes absolutely compelling. Her struggles and her goals of escape are the only things you seem to care about, and it’s all attributed to Pugh’s performance.

That also brings us to the film’s second highlight: Pine. Here he’s so charming and charismatic, but with an underlying hint of menace. Something is off about this man, but you can’t help but be taken by him at the same time. And that’s Pine’s ability to find the balance between attractive and sinister. Surprisingly, Styles holds his own here as well. I find myself always skeptical about pop stars making the transition into acting. And while Styles is not Lady Gaga, he’s at least not a Britney Spears (In terms of acting ability only. I mean are you seriously going to defend Crossroads? C’mon). Styles, like Pine, walks the fine line between nice guy and creep, and you totally buy it.

Styles and Pine’s performances give the film an unsettling tension. But that is only further emphasized by Wilde’s ability to blend nightmarish imagery with scenes of utopian bliss, whether it’s Pugh wrapping saran wrap around her face, or the glass window closing in on her, there’s really a Black Swan vibe present throughout the film; especially when it gets into the disturbing ballet scenes. Wilde definitely has a lot of visual flair and the movie really does profit from her eye for a good shot, along with the brilliant work of cinematographer Matthew Libatique and editor Affonso Goncalves.

It also deserves to be stated that the film has a story that couldn’t be more appropriate for the Me Too era. It benefits off Wilde’s incredibly outspoken spirit, and uses its ’50s-like setting to convey the horrors of toxic male dominance, insecurity, and gaslighting. The notion of the male characters completely dismissing women and writing them off as hysterical despite them actually telling the truth, and doing so in the so-called name of “loyalty” or “brotherhood,” is an apt allegory for women being completely ignored or dismissed when presenting allegations about sexual assault or harassment. It’s a message that feels incredibly timely, and incredibly horrifying. So I’m glad that it has a strong feminist voice to lift it.

That said, continuing on with the theme of wasted potential, Gemma Chan is completely underutilized and confusingly written and executed as a character. Is she intimidating and cold, or kind? Is she a puppet, or a master? I can’t honestly tell you because the movie treats her character with motivations and decisions that are all over the place, and then completely thrown away by the end of it. She feels like she came from a version of the film that existed long ago and was trimmed to high holy hell, to the point where we get a disjointed, scattered portrayal of a character that maybe could have been compelling in Chan’s very capable hands, but we’ll honestly never know.

On the whole however, as I said, I found myself entertained enough with the film thanks to Pugh and some trippiness. But Don’t Worry Darling could have been so much better if it was written and executed a lot better. A sophomore slump is often common with many breakout filmmakers. Jordan Peele had Us. Shyamalan had Unbreakable. And Olivia Wilde has this. But that doesn’t mean she’s not a good filmmaker. It simply means she made something that isn’t as strong as Booksmart. When the drama surrounding the production of the film finally settles, what we’ll have left will be an average movie, that came and went. Nothing more. Nothing less. But nothing terrible either.

Overall Score: B-

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