Don’t Worry Darling: a bland, second-hand suburbia satire

For all the gossip circulating about its stars, you needn’t look outside the movie to find its flaws: false notes, glib ‘insights’ and a lack of imagination are evident at every turn.

22 September 2022

By Nicolas Rapold

Florence Pugh as Alice in Don’t Worry Darling (2022)
Sight and Sound

Directors seem to like trapping Florence Pugh in nightmare scenarios and seeing if she will break free. William Oldroyd did it in his 2016 feature debut Lady Macbeth, as did Ari Aster in his 2018 horror Midsommar (the best use of an entrapped Pugh to date). Now it’s Olivia Wilde’s turn, in her second directorial outing after Booksmart (2019). The societal cage in Don’t Worry Darling is a glossy Hollywood simulacrum of 1950s company-town suburbia, where Pugh’s Alice lives in apparent connubial bliss with dapper executive Jack (Harry Styles, suitably bland). Following the protracted illustration of the suspicious setting – the men in this desert hamlet commute in muscle cars to a hilltop fortress; the women never leave – Wilde whips back the curtain on a puppet-master setup that will surprise few and enlighten fewer.

Wilde joins Pugh and others in playing homemakers delighted with crafting appetisers and trading gossip. Alice gets a clue when glitches pop up in the plastic-wrapped surfaces of this red-meat highball paradise, and a neighbour friend (KiKi Layne) makes a grisly escape that is explained away. As in every other movie dystopia, the trade-off between lost freedom and regimented success is made clear, as Alice pushes against conformism and tries to crack the code of what might be going on (think coercive fantasy under the auspices of Jordan Peterson).

As high-gloss as the production design of the film may be, the 1950s scheme feels quite stale. It could be argued that the movie’s vision of the decade is intentionally cliché, like self-consciously retro barber shops, but it’s not just the visuals that feel handed down. The movie coasts on received ideas about sexism, making a show of exposing power inequities but limited by the banality of its setup.

So much of this material has been picked over in films like The Stepford Wives (1975), or in more than one episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-64). There’s also the very real problem of a culture utterly exhausted by television’s fake-realm fictions, from The Good Place (2016-20) to WandaVision (2021) to Westworld (2016-). False notes also abound in Wilde’s film: Alice staging a gotcha moment by asking people where they’re from (had she never thought to ask them before?); insipid car chases; and fever dreams of 1930s-style Busby Berkeley routines that suggest a lazy evocation of old-timeyness more than a spectacle of synchronised female performance. For all the gossip currently circulating about its stars, you don’t have to look outside the movie to find its deficiencies.

► Don’t Worry Darling is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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