‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Is Dull Female Gothic Aided by Scandal

Don’t Worry Darling is the only movie I’ve ever watched that I literally forgot I’d seen by the next morning. The entire memory of the film had evaporated like breath on a mirror.

When it came back to me, at first all I could recall was an image of the film’s director, Olivia Wilde, playing the small part of a seemingly happy housewife named Bunny, done up in a faux-1950s cocktail dress, arching her eyebrows and smiling with lipsticky malice. It’s a look that really suits her.

As my amnesia passed, I realized I was particularly disappointed in the film because I’d liked Wilde’s directorial debut, the rollicking Booksmart. Comedy is famously hard to do, and there Wilde landed all the laughs, got hilarious performances out of Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, and kept the momentum going right through to the end, which happens less and less in American films.

I’d also looked forward to Don’t Worry Darling because I tend to enjoy the modern female gothic. Pop writer Ira Levin used to do that genre really well, so well that he got two excellent film adaptations of his novels out of it — Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1975). Levin was able to convey, with uncanny power, allegories of the systematized social mores and practices that were victimizing women.

But perhaps because that kind of material has already been done so effectively in decades past, there’s no way to revisit similar material without it seeming tired, played out, not nearly as relevant as it once was. Sexism is still rampant and destructive, but it’s not working exactly the way it did sixty or seventy years ago. We’re not still living in the world of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Or perhaps the simplest answer to my forgetting the movie is that it’s just not very good. It’s shiny and posh-looking, but as hollow as one of the empty eggshells Alice (Florence Pugh) crushes in her hand when she’s beginning to feel the first stirrings of alienation from the luxurious domestic trap in which she’s living. Screenwriter Katie Silberman, who also wrote Booksmart, never finds a way to build tension or momentum in what’s simply an all-too-familiar narrative of female disempowerment.

The film’s setting, in a regressive utopian community in the California desert, looks like a glossy magazine spread, and is so manifestly fake that you know from the start, at least broadly, where the film is headed. It’s headed to the big reveal of what’s behind the false front of Victory, CA, with its pretty people and perfectly maintained suburban mid-century modernist houses, and the wives standing dutifully out in driveways waving goodbye to their husbands, who drive marvelous vintage cars to their mystery jobs in the desert.

Even among the apparently devoted young heterosexual couples who make up nearly the total population of Victory, Alice and Jack (Harry Styles) are extraordinarily wrapped up in each other. The movie spends too long establishing all this, and too frequently shows us how hot Alice and Jack are for each other in several sex scenes that, oddly enough, don’t generate much heat at all — not even in the one that clears the dining room table of the elaborate meal Alice had just prepared.

Part of the problem is Styles, whose retro good looks are right for the part, but who’s so insubstantial onscreen, he seems barely there. Florence Pugh has just the opposite effect — she has the kind of fleshy impact that’s almost distracting. But even she can’t make up for the lack of a charismatic costar. Chris Pine does better with his role as Frank, the revered boss, founder, and slick guru of the experimental community, able to use his absurdly generic Ken Doll handsomeness to sinister advantage.

The opulent details of the phony world of Victory, CA — the popping colors, the lush fabrics, the cocktails, the houses’ sleek decors, the smoothly synchronized movement of the residents — seem to take up all the energy in the film, so that the plotty attempts to expose the underlying reality seem rote and formulaic. So when the big final reveal hits, it’s downright dull.

Part of the reason the scandals surrounding the making and the release of Don’t Worry Darling have so much life is that the film has so little. A genuinely exciting film can overcome bad press about a rocky shoot, or can even make the bad press part of its excitement, with Apocalypse Now (1979) as the most dramatic example. But in this case, bored critics writing their reviews of Don’t Worry Darling tend to turn gratefully to the gossip surrounding the film, claiming in face-saving rationalizations that it’s gotten so out of hand it can no longer be ignored by a responsible entertainment journalist.

But, oh, come on. It’s such delicious scandal, the rare insider stuff that jaded film crews and industry cynics dine out on, that is almost never publicly aired until well after a movie’s release. A love affair between director Wilde and star Styles that was rumored to contribute to the end of the director’s marriage to Jason Sudeikis and cause contention during the shoot? An alleged on-set screaming match between star Pugh and director Wilde? A well-known, trouble-prone actor, Shia LeBeouf, who was either fired from the male lead role ultimately played by Styles or else quit, depending on who’s telling the tale? The star, Pugh, apparently refusing to do publicity for the film — and believe me, that’s big, practically the unkindest cut of all! And then there’s “Spitgate.” The much-debated footage of Harry Styles possibly spitting on costar Chris Pine at the movie’s Venice Film Festival premiere sent the internet obsession with Don’t Worry Darling into overdrive.

It’s a jackpot of scandals. And we’ve heard it all as the Don’t Worry Darling principals rushed to share with the public their grievances, or else to deny any serious strife.

As an unwritten industry rule, director, cast, and key crew lie their heads off, if necessary, in interviews and public appearances, all claiming to love and admire each other fervently while promoting the film, in order to avoid detracting from the film’s potential success in release. No doubt there’s a fear that in the future, this might be called avoiding the “Don’t Worry Darling effect.” In general, it’s only well after the film is safely launched that key players start talking about behind-the-scenes turmoil, if they ever do. George Clooney waited until 2000 to tell Playboy magazine about his physical altercation with notoriously volatile director David O. Russell on the set of Three Kings, declaring he’d never work with Russell again. And who knew until recently that star Bill Murray and writer-director Harold Ramis battled so bitterly on Groundhog Day (1993), the former friends didn’t speak for more than twenty years and only after Ramis was on his deathbed?

Olivia Wilde is suggesting in interviews that her film is being targeted by malicious rumor-mongering media because she’s a woman director. It’s a surefire rhetorical move that’s been picked up eagerly by the press. Carina Chocano of the New York Times has written a doozy of a think piece about it called “Will Anyone Give ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ a Chance?”:

It’s odd that this could be the fate of “Don’t Worry Darling,” a film about men trapping women in a regressive, suffocating place where dissent means repudiation and exile — a film whose big plot developments must be hard for Wilde to resist talking about, given how much the narrative surrounding the film echoes their point. But it’s impossible to discuss without spoiling the story, so I’ll just share an anecdote. My 14-year-old daughter came with me to the screening, unencumbered by external baggage. When the credits began to roll, she announced, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Seeing Wilde’s name among the cast, she asked which character the director had played. When I told her, she was impressed. She said: “I want to be her. I want to do what she does.” It made me happy to hear this. And then I started to worry.

But the fact is, bad press about the “troubled shoot” or revelations of obnoxious or unsavory behavior among the well-known figures working on a film has long been a dreaded source of gossip and scandal in the film industry. There’s a reason such a big chunk of every mainstream film’s budget goes to PR and advertising to put, right from the beginning, an appealing face on a film and everyone involved in it.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the consequences of terrible publicity about a production gone mad is what happened with the notorious Heaven’s Gate (1980), which was mired for a solid year in interminable reshoots, astounding cost overruns, allegations of animal abuse, legendary cocaine consumption, and directorial hubris that seemed to border on the psychotic. The film cost so much and bombed so hard, it nearly took the studio down with it. The fallout severely impaired Michael Cimino’s career, and his once stellar reputation as an auteur-god never recovered. It’s even said that the reverence for the auteur figure in general that had been building up in Hollywood in the 1960s and ’70s was finally dismantled by Heaven’s Gate, leading to a return to traditional Hollywood producer-and-studio-executive control over the creative process, and a drive for safer commercial material from the 1980s onward.

Compared to that, this kerfuffle over Olivia Wilde’s new film is light entertainment, which is a welcome addition to the dull experience of actually seeing the film. And frankly, in this case, it’s probably helping to get the attention of moviegoers. The word is Don’t Worry Darling is doing just fine at the box office. Maybe Wilde — if she’s smart — is secretly thankful for the gossipmongers.

Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.

Featured image: Warner Bros. Pictures

This article was first published on Jacobin.