Does “Don’t Worry Darling” Still Work When We Ignore All the Gossip Surrounding It?

Unfortunately, the off-screen drama is more compelling than the Olivia Wilde film itself

September 22, 2022 6:30 am
Harry Styles and Florence Pugh in "Don't Worry Darling"
Harry Styles and Florence Pugh in "Don't Worry Darling"
Warner Bros. Pictures

The trappings of the new movie Don’t Worry Darling are lusciously, suspiciously retro: gleaming household appliances, shiny chrome-and-color cars, impossibly chic-looking outfits, all lit with endless desert sunshine streaming down upon what looks like a patch of prefab early-’60s suburbia, an island of well-appointed conformity, with a side of catty neighborhood chatter behind everyone’s backs. So it’s only fitting that the movie’s behind-the-scenes drama has the pettiness and prettiness of old-fashioned gossip, too. You may have pieced together from endless online posts that the film’s star, Florence Pugh, has all but disowned the movie, opting out of doing much promotion, supposedly out of irritation with Harry Styles, the world-famous pop star who plays her on-screen husband, and, perhaps moreover, the film’s director.

That director herself is unusually and impossibly glamorous, too: It’s former starlet Olivia Wilde, who also appears in Darling, her sophomore feature following the funny teen comedy Booksmart. The cold shoulder from Pugh may have something to do with Wilde and Styles’s open-secret relationship, which seems to have began on set; Shia LaBeouf, who does not appear in the film, added another twist when he implied that Wilde did not let him go from the Styles role due to good-feminist bona fides (as she has implied in the press), but in fact tried to lure him back after a conflict with Pugh.

This should all exist well outside the purview of people who watch movies, whether professionally or for fun. (Indeed, likely similar situations have unfolded, undetected or to little interest, on the sets of countless other films.) On one hand, this surfeit of gossip and tension does no favors to Don’t Worry Darling, which is a pretty straightforward things-aren’t-quite-right Twilight Zone type of thriller, predictable in the broad outline if watchable in its expensively engineered details. On the other, as mentioned, the megawatt star collisions are part and parcel of the movie’s stylish appeal. 

After all, the mind-warping intrigue afflicting Alice (Pugh), the housewife with a perfect house and in lust with her beautiful husband Jack (Styles), can be traced quickly and easily to the usual suspects. Perhaps it has something to do with the big, ambitious, secret project spearheaded by the company that employs Jack and owns the entire planned community where everyone in the movie lives? But atypically for a big-studio movie unambiguously aimed at adults (Rated R! For sex scenes, albeit relatively tasteful ones!), Don’t Worry Darling is pumped up with radiation-level star power. Usually this many famous faces can only be lined up for jokey cameos in a blockbuster or maybe — maybe —some kind of auteur-driven awards-bait material. Pugh is a once and future Oscar nominee. Styles is a globally famous singer. Wilde is an established actor/director. The big boss at the company is played by Chris Pine. Gemma Chan and Kiki Layne are both coming off of roles in big movies like Crazy Rich Asians, If Beale Street Could Talk, Eternals and The Old Guard; the supporting cast is rounded out by familiar comedy personalities like Nick Kroll, Kate Berlant and Timothy Simons. 

Not everyone is given a lot to do; Layne and Chan in particular feels more like props than characters. But because the movie’s story, while entertaining enough in the moment, feels like a foregone conclusion, its real spectacle better matches the offscreen nonsense: Watching a bunch of celebrity personas knock into each other, and potentially combust.

The most combustible is Pugh, who seems to summon the electricity of her past characters, moreso than an established public persona. (Her beloved cooking videos on Instagram are almost a pre-parody of the domestic-goddess figure Pugh is playing here, though of course her casual cook-alongs are deeply fashionable on their own way, right down to her playful self-costuming.) Alice is a grown woman who has traces of the little-sister insouciance Pugh showed in Black Widow and Little Women, kept well within socially acceptable boundaries as a cheerful member of this mysterious community — until she can no longer contain her frustrations and curiosities, recalling the almost molecular resistance of her grieving character in Midsommar

What, if anything, Alice may be grieving is not immediately clear — which makes great use of Pugh’s ability to summon dissatisfaction. Jack, meanwhile, is more the square company man than the enlightened libertine Styles plays at in his carefully curated pop-music composites (get Rolling Stone on board with some faux-’70s rock, then lock down Pitchfork with songs that sound more like early-2010s indie), but it’s easy enough to draw lines between the image-consciousness of a dashing young traditionalist and a musician who came up in a boy band. Wilde and Pine, meanwhile, play more confident and seductive figures, befitting their decade-plus of movie-world experience: Wilde serves the status quo with a smile while Pine more directly speechifies, daring anyone else to challenge him. 

So is Don’t Worry Darling yet another splashy Hollywood metaphor about struggling through the artifice of making a movie? Not consciously — or even, really, all that interestingly. Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman (who also wrote Booksmart) clearly think they have a bold, contemporary feminist statement on their hands; the buzzwords that could be used to describe what’s going on here (gaslighting! Toxic masculinity! Maybe some late-stage capitalism?) could fill up the internet, or at least several tedious tweet-threads. In its slick technical proficiency and didactic, secondhand feminism, Don’t Worry Darling could have been written and directed by Molly Davidson, the overachieving go-getter played by Beanie Feldstein in Booksmart. It’s smart on paper. Even as an actual movie, it has its pleasures; the mystery Alice uncovers works well enough, though the screenplay works hard to overexplain itself. 

Maybe that’s why the movie-star intrigue that nudged its way into the movie’s promotional tour is able to loom so large while the story unfolds: It’s something the movie will not and cannot explain. Styles cultists, gossipy pot-stirrers, Perez Hilton nostalgics and the generally very-online have been poring over Instagram posts (or lack thereof) and video clips and print interviews, demanding or claiming to know the impossible: What was running through the heads of these beautiful/petty/innocent/hypocritical/self-destructive/normal people (take your pick). Apply this scrutiny to Don’t Worry Darling itself, and you’ll find a lot of relatively easy answers beneath its attractive exteriors. When Pugh squares off against Pine, though, or lets Wilde cozy up to her, or acts Styles off the screen (to be fair, somewhat by design), the movie zaps to life. That could just be the current flowing through Pugh. Or it could be a surplus of old-fashioned glamour, in urgent need of a conductor. 

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