Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 27, 2022)
Known as an actor, Olivia Wilde made her directorial debut with 2019’s well-regarded Booksmart. For the follow-up, Wilde returns with 2022’s star-studded drama Don’t Worry Darling.
Along with husband Jack (Harry Styles), Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) appears to live the idyllic life of the 1950s housewife. In the tight-knit “experimental community” of Victory, Alice keeps a nice house and socializes with her similarly content neighbors.
Cracks appear in this perfect setting, though, and Alice slowly starts to suspect a darker side to paradise. As the truth behind Victory becomes more and more apparent, Alice struggles for her own survival.
At the very least, Wilde deserves credit for her willingness to diverge from the stylistic path she established with Booksmart. That one delivered a teen-centered “coming of age” mix of comedy and drama, whereas Darling takes on a more surreal narrative.
Darling becomes a difficult movie to discuss in detail due to all its twists and turns. A review without spoilers seems nearly impossible.
That said, an even moderately astute viewer will quickly sense that one cannot take events on face value right off the bat. For instance, the movie opens with a cocktail party in which guests represent a variety of ethnicities.
The issue? The possibility an upscale suburban community in the 1950s would allow that kind of “racial mingling” seems far-fetched, so right off the bat, the audience should know something is amiss.
Other hints arise as well, such as when we go to a pool party. There one of the female guests struts around topless – again, something that feels awfully unlikely for the buttoned-up 1950s. Never mind that the woman sports bikini bottoms that simply didn’t exist in the 1950s.
Of course, one could try to swallow these stretches of credulity due to the aforementioned “experimental” nature of Victory. Perhaps that location boasts a more progressive attitude than the rest of the United States.
However, this becomes tough to swallow because Darling portrays such a relentlessly “1950s” view of society. In Victory, the men all work nine to five while the women clean house, cook, and pump out babies.
Given how restrictive the movie’s take on gender politics appears, it then makes no sense Victory would seem so advanced in terms of racial or sexual elements. We quickly sense that we encounter a world where we can’t take what we see on face value.
This would work really well if Wilde managed to portray the growing sense of unreality with any subtlety or depth. Instead, Wilde makes the creeping oddness so obvious that it leaves no room for real intrigue.
At its heart, Darling feels like a collection of influences. We get obvious signs of Stepford Wives and The Village plus a little Get Out for good measure.
Hopefully those references won’t act as too “spoilery” on their own, but one shouldn’t take them literally. They simply imply the kind of story and events one should expect in Darling but without specific plot or character representations.
In any event, Darling offers an odd mix of a tale with many potential spoilers… and none. On one hand, it provides a slew of twists that could catch the viewer by surprise.
On the other hand, Darling plays out the curveballs with so little subtlety that none of them feel especially difficult to anticipate. Even if we can’t predict specific events, we know to expect the “unexpected”… which then makes these scenes perversely predictable.
Darling does manage some intrigue during its first act, mainly because we want to find out what those “surprises” will become. Even if the movie seems hamfisted, the basic nature of the mystery manages to pique curiosity.
For a while, but then Darling collapses under the weight of its pretenses. The film gets sillier and sillier as it goes, so when it needs to build real drama and suspense, the viewer seems more likely to have checked out and given up on the tale.
Wilde does amass a good cast, as in addition to Pugh, Styles and herself, Darling features Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, Nick Kroll, Timothy Simons and others. Unfortunately, that roster can’t push the movie across the finish line.
Though damned if Pugh doesn’t try. She manages to imbue her thin character with real passion and personality, so she becomes the movie’s biggest strength.
However, Pugh ends up as arguably the film’s only strength. Darling shows moments of intrigue but too much of it feels absurd and half-baked for the movie to succeed.