At some point, as TikTok videos analyzed with the intensity of the Zapruder film whether spit flew at the Venice Film Festival premiere of Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling,” it became clear that the melodrama of the film’s promotional tour was slipping slightly into the The film itself had been eclipsed.
The tabloid frenzy that engulfed “Don’t Worry Darling” was so public, so open, that it quickly degenerated into something exhausting. I would definitely rather watch the Don’t Worry Darling movie again than repeat this media storm. But in a way, the on-screen and off-screen dramas go hand-in-hand. Like this tense Venice debut, Wilde’s film, set in a fantasy world of Palm Springs, brings together beautiful faces in a sunny, fashionable location with the possibility of sinister machinations.
Don’t Worry Darling, which opens in theaters Friday, takes a Stepford Wives or Truman Show sort of concept and reframes it with a strong #MeToo lens. All the ingredients for a powerful dystopian drama are in place: Wilde, an aspiring filmmaker who has made her smashing debut, 2019’s teen comedy Booksmart; Florence Pugh, one of the most electrifying young actresses working in film today; the pop presence of Harry Style; and a sensational mid-century modern production design thanks to Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House.
But for all its promises, “Don’t Worry Darling” lacks the right balance of suspense with every twist and turn. Wilde, based on a screenplay by Katie Silberman, conjures up a 1950s-style utopia of sorts in which young married couple Alice (Pugh) and Jack Kramden (Styles) live in a quaint cul-de-sac. Each morning, the devoted housewives kiss their suit-clad husbands goodbye before heading to a mysterious dirt mountain in the desert to do what keeps this odd man’s fantasy going.
Ever since Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” at the latest, the marriage of routine and ritual with ominous cracks in a social facade has been a good basis for conspiratorial thrillers of all kinds, from “The Twilight Zone” to “Get Out”. And while it’s a compelling starting point for Don’t Worry Darling, every little revelation is bluntly overdone and robs the film of any mystery. The town is called Victory, and its only black resident is a traumatized woman (KiKi Layne) who screams, “Why are we here?” before she quickly disappeared. No more subtle is the town’s cult-like leader, Frank (Chris Pine, gently devious), who preaches about keeping the “chaos” at bay.
But it’s still easy enough to get along with the movie because, well, Pugh. If her dedication to the film was uncertain during its release, Pugh’s commitment to the role is far harder to question. It’s often engrossing to follow her increasingly paranoid psychology, as Alice’s growing distrust causes her to doubt everything, perhaps even her own seemingly perfect husband.
For a while, “Don’t Worry Darling” seems like a near-perfect Hollywood embodiment of the King Princess song “1950.” (“I like it when we’re set in 1950.”) Pugh and Styles have glamorous chemistry together, even as their entrenched gender roles — Alice greets him at the front door at the end of the day, cocktail in hand — become increasingly questionable. Style’s appearance, along with his appearance in the upcoming My Policeman, hints at a real possibility for him as a movie star of cryptic appeal.
Ultimately, “Don’t Worry Darling” isn’t worth all the excitement off-screen, nor the on-screen disappointment it’s portrayed to be. It’s an enticing but clunky thriller that feels to me like two acts mixed up for three, the ominous structure overly prolonged, and the story left out with a big twist after it ends just as it gets interesting .
“Don’t Worry Darling,” a Warner Bros. release, was rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for Sexuality, Violent Content and Language. Running time: 123 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP