In its best moments, Don’t Worry Darling is a thoroughly engrossing misfire. A talented cast and crew gives everything they have, juggling like frantic circus performers doomed to drop everything to the floor. Indeed, director Olivia Wilde attempts to bundle several movies under the sprawling tent of one big carnival: Over the span of two-plus hours, Darling lobs elements of social commentary, pointed satire, frothy melodrama, and mind-bending Serling sci-fi into the air. Everything splats, but in a most fascinating way. This is one of the most memorable and impressive bad movies I’ve ever seen.
The plot is an ungainly hybrid of Lost‘s Dharma Initiative and Jonestown, tailored in Don Draper’s sharkskin chic. Set during LBJ’s America, Darling takes place in an isolated company town, somewhere in the crackling sagebrush of California’s Sonoran Desert. Victory, a mysterious and powerful corporation, has founded a sprawling community, replete with 50s sitcom houses, department stores, and trolleys. Katie Silberman’s script zeroes in on Jack (Harry Styles) and Alice (Florence Pugh), an attractive young couple within the Victory family.
In the early scenes, Jack and Alice make for the perfect couple–lusty, loving, and loyal. He’s a fast-riser in the company, while she’s a dutiful homemaker. Together, they’re the face for this community’s rich potential.
Of course, something ain’t quite right with this suburban utopia. Turns out, Victory’s founder is Frank (Chris Pine), a handsome, messianic figure who spouts philosophical drivel and puts out some real Jim Jones vibes. When Margaret (Kiki Layne), one of Alice’s closest friends, blows the whistle that nothing in Victory is what it seems, she gets dragged away by burly dudes in jumpsuits. At first, Alice buys into the company line that Margaret was just a loopy malcontent. But over time, doubt begins to seep into her mind, compelling her to dive into the company’s darkest secrets.
Alice’s investigation sets off alarms all over the community. Bunny (Olivia Wilde), Alice’s BFF, chides her as nosy and ungrateful. Shelley (Gemma Chan), Frank’s chilly wife, is even more skillful and devastating in her gaslighting. Meanwhile, the other housewives regard Alice with mix of quiet concern. And then there’s Frank, who taunts Alice to challenge his authority. Look what happened to Margaret, after all. On top of that, all this conflict shakes her marriage to the core.
From this point, Darling’s plot hurls some wicked curveballs at the viewer. Yes, as in plural. I won’t spoil any of them, except to say they permanently send the movie into deep left field. Your appreciation for Darling will hinge entirely on how patient you can be with all this indulgence. It also helps to have a short memory, as Silberman’s shenanigans evoke a dozen movies that did a much better job of messing with your head.
Still, there are bits of a compelling story embedded within all the detritus. As the center of gravity for Victory’s posh hedonism, the Frank character has an undeniable magnetism. (I’ll confess a guilty curiosity with cults and their leaders.) Pine nails his performance, playing Frank as a Draper-ish alpha male, at once suave, charming, and witheringly cruel. The movie comes alive when Frank ambles onto the screen, which is not nearly enough. Darling wastes too much time on the Jack/Alice storyline, much to its detriment.
The film’s emphasis on that soapy aspect means we get boatloads of screen time for Styles and Pugh. Unfortunately, despite Wilde’s affinity for humid, panting sex scenes, the actors can barely manage a spark of chemistry. Rumors abound of onset strife between them, and between Pugh and Wilde. That could’ve soured the milk, of course, but I place more blame on how underwritten these characters are. (As a rule, I think backstage drama affects box office more than the final product.) Pugh is strong performer, but we never get a sense of what makes Alice tick. That goes double for Jack, who never amounts to more than a repressed sociopath. This entire section of the movie begs for meatier writing.
On a similar subject, Wilde casts a host of talented supporting players, but has no idea what to do with them. Nick Kroll, a comedian whose sarcasm runs deep and wide, gets squandered as an overzealous acolyte of Frank’s hypermasculine horseshit. Ditto for Timothy Simons, who once brought Veep‘s Jonah Ryan into oily, sleazy existence. (Now that was a show that knew how to roast toxic masculinity on a spit.) Here, he plays an ethically shaky doctor who keeps Frank’s followers whacked out and submissive. Simons has a weird energy that jolts the movie to life for a blip or two. Much like Pine, he gets backdoored so Styles and Pugh can scream at each other a little more.
On the whole, Don’t Worry Darling is a big, fantastic mess. It’s disjointed and erratic, with an ambitious reach that far exceeds its grasp. Wilde spends the first half of the film building a mildly-effective thriller, only to pack it into a Thelma and Louise convertible and send it screaming into a ravine during the finale. And yet, Darling kept me glued to the screen in a way no film this bad ever has. I spent days pondering both its beauty and mediocrity. There’s a strange poetry in just how disappointing it is. Maybe that sounds like an invitation. Maybe it’s a warning. I’ll let you decide which.
123 min. R. On demand.