If there’s truth in the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, Don’t Worry Darling should blast off when the box-office opens on Friday, September 23.
After its Venice Film Festival premiere, salacious buzz about the psychological thriller was overwhelming, centering on rumors about tension between director Olivia Wilde and star Florence Pugh. Speculation centers on Wilde’s infatuation with pop-star Harry Styles, causing her split with long-time fiancé Jason Sudeikis, a friend of Pugh’s, plus Wilde’s firing Shia LeBeouf, replacing him with Styles.
Don’t Worry Darling follows Alice Chambers (Pugh), a compliant 1950s suburban Palm Springs housewife, dutifully doting on her ambitious husband Jack (Styles), an engineer who works for a mysterious entity hidden in a hill in the California desert. It’s called the Victory Project, spearheaded by Frank (Chris Pine), a charismatic, if manipulative lifestyle guru who exudes patriarchal masculinity.
“You are worthy of the life you’ve chosen,” Frank intones, explaining Victory’s surreal affluence.
Alice is friendly with her saucy neighbor Bunny (Wilde) and disturbed Margaret (KiKi Layne), who wanders around the pristine enclave like a zombie – perhaps because she went ‘off-limits’ into the desert and ‘lost’ her young son. According Victory’s creepy physician (Timothy Simons), Margaret will be well soon – but Alice suspects otherwise.
Working from a script by Carey & Shane Van Dyke, revised by Katie Silberman, this is Olivia Wilde’s second directorial effort after Booksmart (2019). The sinister plot takes the Stepford Wives concept, adding a fillip of The Truman Show and an M. Night Shyamalan-type plot twist – with Katie Byron’s visually vivid production design artistically photographed by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan).
Problem is: there are too many intriguing yet meaningless distractions- like kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley numbers and Styles’ celebrating his promotion by erupting into a wild tap-dance routine accompanied by a big band.
All this dilutes what should have been a provocative payoff, even though Pugh’s gradual self-awareness exudes a frightening deception, coupled with nervous disillusionment. And the setting evokes memories of the Manhattan Project’s highly regimented ‘secret cities’ for those who developed the atomic bomb.
By choosing Palm Springs, Olivia Wilde found idyllic locations at architect Richard Neutra’s renown glass/steel/stone Kaufmann Desert House, a marvel of 1946 Modernism; the ‘Volcano House’ in Newberry Springs; along with Palm Springs City Hall and Visitors Center, both designed by architect Albert Frey.
On the Granger Gauge, Don’t Worry Darling is a flamboyant, feminist 5, opening in theaters on Friday, September 23