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Eye-popping social thriller ‘Do not Fear Darling’ has every part going for it — besides a compelling screenplay

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“Don’t Worry Darling” – ★ ★

Let’s be charitable to Olivia Wilde’s ambitious, carefully crafted (and already critically skewered) second directorial project, the enigmatic midcentury modern thriller “Don’t Worry Darling.”

It offers a magnificent fusion of sounds, eye-popping production design, chicly retro costumes, nerve-pinging score (by John Powell), immersive cinematography, and personal-best performances (from Florence Pugh, Harry Styles and even Chris Pine).

It also dangles before us a sumptuous narrative carrot — a mystery — prompting us to continually ask, “What the heck is going on here?”

But by the movie’s deflated ending, we could be asking, “So, that’s what’s going on? What the heck?”

Long before the really strange stuff shows up (most of it ruined for us in the film’s trailers), we suspect something sinister to be afoot in the utopian 1950s Victory Project community, a bedroom suburb resembling the one in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands.”

Every morning, the suit-wearing husbands climb into their cotton-candy-colored period automobiles and head off to work at the nearby Victory Project.

What do the hubbies do? Their wives don’t have a clue.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 


Party-hopping Bunny (director Olivia Wilde), left, chats up Alice (Florence Pugh) at one of many social gatherings in the mystery thriller "Don't Worry Darling."


Party-hopping Bunny (director Olivia Wilde), left, chats up Alice (Florence Pugh) at one of many social gatherings in the mystery thriller “Don’t Worry Darling.”
– Courtesy of Warner Bros.

That’s OK with Alice (Pugh), who’s married to rising corporate star Jack (a charismatically combustible Styles) and seems to have stepped right out of a colorized episode of “The Donna Reed Show,” except perhaps for their extremely healthy sex life.

They fit in nicely with their peers, drinking rivers of martinis with friends and neighbors, including the party-hopping Bunny (Wilde), her husband, Dean (Nick Kroll), and a new couple on the block, Violet (Sydney Chandler) and Bill (Douglas Smith).

We meet Frank (Pine, emanating a menacing blend of cult leader and Amway recruiter), the founder of the Project and community, holding court with all around as he leads his followers in chants to “change the world” and speaks of reformatting society into “the way things are supposed to be!”

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

Nothing scary about that …

Alice’s complacent looking-glass existence begins to crack when a suddenly panicked neighbor, Margaret (KiKi Layne) escapes from her Stepford-wife mold, warning everyone about the Project and how everything around is a lie.

This, just before a group of guys in red jumpsuits (borrowed from Jordan Peele’s “Us”?) hauls her away. Alice sees it all.

What the heck is going on?



Olivia Wilde's second directorial effort "Don't Worry Darling" stars Florence Pugh as Alice, who really does live in a looking-glass world that might not be her reality.


Olivia Wilde’s second directorial effort “Don’t Worry Darling” stars Florence Pugh as Alice, who really does live in a looking-glass world that might not be her reality.
– Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Alice’s dreams become bizarre homages to old black-and-white Busby Berkeley musical numbers performed by the women in her neighborhood.

She begins to question Jack about his job. To question who Frank really is. To question who she really is.

And why are women forbidden to enter or visit the Project headquarters built atop a nearby hill?

She decides to go there and find out.

“Don’t Worry Darling” possesses all the technical and artistic qualities needed to be a sci-fi social thriller for our time — all except for a payoff worth waiting for.

Is Wilde warning we’ll fall into a “Handmaid’s Tale” era of dutiful and obedient housewives under the control of secretive husbands should we continue to revert to an idealized period of American history that never existed?

If so, where is the call to arms?

Is “Don’t Worry Darling” an appeal for critical thinking skills in a society increasingly occupied by bendable, blendable people, what Walter Lippmann labeled “the bewildered herd”?



Alice (Florence Pugh) thinks she's got the perfect 1950s lifestyle, until the fabric in her world begins to unravel in "Don't Worry Darling."


Alice (Florence Pugh) thinks she’s got the perfect 1950s lifestyle, until the fabric in her world begins to unravel in “Don’t Worry Darling.”
– Courtesy of Warner Bros.

If so, why does its climax need yet one more cliched car chase? It’s not that cerebral to begin with.

Pugh’s contribution as an actor can’t be minimized. An incandescent package of charisma, alluring voice and explosive physicality (she’s the best female runner in Hollywood), Pugh takes up much of the slack in the underwhelming screenplay. But not enough.

Sadly, more viewers have probably inspected that infamous video of Styles allegedly spitting on Pine with more interest than they will muster for “Don’t Worry Darling.”

The real-life, behind-the-scenes drama involving an on-set love affair, a clash between director and star, a highly public serving of custody papers, Shia LaBeouf’s replacement by Styles, and the previously mentioned spitting controversy might be more appealing.

If it ever shows up as a Lifetime Channel movie.

• • •

Starring: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, Chris Pine

Directed by: Olivia Wilde

Other: A Warner Bros. release in theaters. Rated R for language, sexual situations, violence. 123 minutes

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        



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