4/10 I like Olivia Wilde as an actress. I’ve never met her, but I’m sure she’s a very nice lady.
Now that’s out of the way, Don’t Worry Darling is a lukewarm mess, not terrible, interesting enough to be as bad as it is but not interesting enough to be as dumb as it is. There are some specific stock plot twists that are very difficult to take seriously – like a child’s poorly performed magic trick, everyone’s seen it before. What really amazes about the performance is its naivety and the second-hand embarrassment it conjures. Both the film and the furor surrounding it are revealing about Hollywood social politics and how they unfurl outward into the culture at large. Wilde’s background and personality are deeply entwined with why the movie is the way it is and why it’s being talked about the way it is, so we’re going to get more personal than usual here.
Somewhere in the Sierra Nevada, 1950s- Alice and Jack Chambers (Florence Pugh and Harry Styles) live in marital bliss in a secret nuclear weapons testing industry town to which only married men are recruited and in which an extremely gendered social order is maintained outside the office by the boss, Frank (Chris Pine). As she makes their home never knowing where her food comes from and never able to leave the town, Alice Chambers begins to notice glitches in reality.
Cross-referencing how Wilde’s 2019 directorial debut Booksmart was made, how its press played out, how Don’t Worry Darling’s press played out, all the stories coming from set and the director’s humiliating videotaped behavior, Don’t Worry Darling might be the best movie that could possibly result from this environment. It’s beautifully shot and bright and colorful, Katie Byron’s production design is incredible and Pugh and Pine are spectacular. Everything baffling and wrong with Don’t Worry Darling spurts out at the seams like blood from a poorly sewn Frankenstein’s monster, but there’s a lot of quality to appreciate as well.
The biggest impression you get from Don’t Worry Darling is disorganization, but, pun intended, it’s a wild disorganization. The first indications that something is wrong are in early scenes where the dialogue is clearly off-the-cuff, but the camera is swirling around in a way that takes precise planning – not only does Wilde seem to have packed every idea she’s ever had into the movie, but acclaimed cinematographer Matthew Libatique and Byron seem to be running wild as well.
Nobody seems to be steering the ship, but Pugh commands the screen when she’s on it. Much of the film is made up of her cleaning and cooking in the house and reacting to Byron’s trick sets. It reminds me a lot of Joker in that the main body of the movie is just Pugh existing in the space as a stay-at-home wife whose home is always closing in around her, sometimes literally.
Even if it’s all a little “yeah, I’ve also seen Stepford Wives,” Don’t Worry Darling’s basic fantasy is still evocative and potent. Alice Chambers and the other wives have no idea what their husbands do all day, no freedom to leave and not even the agency to move around the town, but their acceptance of this is strictly socially enforced. It’s filled with these sinister little moments of extras prioritizing conformity over helping Alice Chambers, and the horror strikes whenever she steps out of line.
All the way back in January 2022, Wilde was pushing Don’t Worry Darling as the kind of daring film about female pleasure we rarely see, and that would be a spectacular direction for it to actually go in. No mystery plot, no tricks, just a married couple in a regressive, rigidly patriarchal society who are so in love, who have such demented onscreen sex, that they are forced to prioritize each other to a degree that tears down the social norms holding up the patriarchy. That would have been a pretty fun movie to see, but one brief, early scene of cunnilingus does not that movie make.
Don’t Worry Darling angled itself after that Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016) cultural niche of commoditizing feminism – this is “the woman movie,” and if you are a feminist, you must perform that belief by seeing and saying you liked this movie – which is always a huge red flag, because things stop being feminist when you commoditize them. There’s a core philosophical roadblock that Wilde runs into here, both in Don’t Worry Darling and also in her life. Feminism isn’t just about girl power, it’s – well, it can be – an extremely comprehensive philosophy that identifies all threats to body autonomy, from pregnancy to the prison system and all the way up to capitalism. The idea that we have to monetize our bodies in order to survive because basic needs cost money is pretty repugnant when you think about it, and it flies in the face of the ideas at the core of feminism. These things are most obvious to blue-collar workers, who must very literally sell their bodies through labor, and this is where class becomes the elephant in the room.
Olivia Wilde comes from immense privilege, with family wealth dating back into the 1800s including a Scottish lord and a crown-appointed governor of Hong Kong on her father’s side. She grew up in Georgetown in Washington D.C., an extremely wealthy 73% white enclave in one of the most densely black and impoverished cities in the U.S., attending private schools and spending her summers in Ireland. She bounced around East Coast colleges before breaking into television at age 19, starting a prolific acting career that brought her to both Hollywood and Broadway. This has been coupled with an outspoken activism career with organizations like RYOT media, the ACLU and the Democratic Party. None of this is wrong, but it is the profile of someone with a lot of friends in Hollywood who is very eager to change the world for the better, but may lack the first-person experience that might inform that eagerness. These traits are what have defined her career as a director so far.
Wilde’s directorial career started with 2019’s Booksmart, an absolutely putrid improv buddy comedy that benefited from a bizarre word-of-mouth campaign that started with some high-profile Hollywood celebrities who, well, a lot of these tweets read much more like congratulatory letters at the office than people praising a film they enjoyed. The campaign also leaned heavily into the identity politics of a female writer, director and lead character and griping about making less money than Disney’s Aladdin remake that came out the same weekend, which is a really weird take to have about an R-rated comedy that released in almost 2,000 fewer theaters and made more than its entire budget back on opening weekend. Booksmart was an extreme critical and commercial success and started a bidding war for Wilde’s services – I don’t want to say anyone who claims they enjoyed the movie is lying, but anyone who claims the movie was failing and needed your personal help was, at best, misinformed.
Booksmart and Don’t Worry Darling have a startling amount in common, even outside of their apocalyptic press campaigns. They both come from a perspective of immense privilege – Booksmart is about two white high school seniors in suburban Los Angeles who are surprised and bereft that their peers, also white teenagers whose families are rich enough to live in suburban Los Angeles, got into top colleges like they did. The movie, which came out two months after the Varsity Blues scandal broke, presents this not just as a real problem, but as a relatable one.
Don’t Worry Darling presents the scenario in Victory as relatable, and it has the same weird disconnect from real-world events – again, I don’t know Wilde, I can’t say what she personally has or hasn’t experienced, but the movie feels like it was made by someone who hasn’t faced many of these barriers and dangers first-hand.
It’s a lot of little things, but the biggest giveaway for me is the complete lack of domestic violence. In a movie that is supposed to be about systemic misogyny, nobody gets raped. Nobody ever socks their wife in the mouth to keep her in line – it looks like they wouldn’t even dream of it. Alice Chambers constantly contradicts her husband in public and shouts at his boss, she’s definitely not scared of this sort of thing. Men are portrayed as horny goofballs, but even Frank doesn’t seem threatening. In Don’t Worry Darling, female oppression is a hidden cabal that controls by suggestion from afar, something you may not even notice and have to push boundaries to find, instead of physical violence within the home that falls on women for merely existing.
In both films, Wilde has taken an acclaimed script and essentially ignored it – she told both Booksmart leads to “rewrite the script in their own voices,” and maybe the biggest problem with Don’t Worry Darling is she seems to have carried this mentality with her. Just about every scene is improvised, and it mostly works fine, but the times it doesn’t stick out. Pugh, a real actor, single-handedly creates most of the film’s best moments by filling the frame with her energy, but Styles, a pop star in his first major film role, flounders for the entire runtime. In many of their scenes, he’s just repeating the same word over and over and letting Pugh force it into a full conversation. It’s ugly to watch – I start to feel terrible for him personally as the film moves on and Wilde keeps sending him out there obviously unprepared for his scenes.
He demonstrates significant performing talent elsewhere in his career, so maybe he just needs the longer rehearsals of rock shows to bring it out, but that crashes headlong into yet another elephant in the room – he was hired to replace Shia LaBeouf, a real actor who could easily match Pugh’s energy, but who left the production because he wasn’t satisfied with the amount of rehearsal time. As release neared, Wilde turned it into an extended, messy public incident by lying about it – lies that weren’t just unnecessary and easily provable, but called LaBeouf’s professionalism and prior sexual assault allegations into question. The smart move is usually to keep your mouth shut, but she’s making direct threats against LaBeouf’s career that he basically has to respond to, and he had the receipts, so now we have them too-
This is what makes the whole movie about Wilde personally, watching her try to woo LaBeouf back to the job, knowing that she would later lie and say she fired him and then have a separately messy public affair with his replacement, with this drippy star-child approach that offers no concrete solutions, seemingly thinking that if she could place enough blame on his main coworker, with whom she would go on to have yet another messy public split, she could get him to ignore major workflow problems. A movie set is a workplace. This is a video of a boss asking an employee who left a bad work environment to come back, and her approach is to throw his closest coworker under the bus.
This video is such a complete picture of everything cringy and weird about Don’t Worry Darling and Booksmart that it’s almost a functional substitute for the films. They’re movies made by the person in this video. They reflect her sympathy-without-understanding approach and her apparent ignorance of the problems she’s meant to be addressing, be it scheduling rehearsals or tackling systemic misogyny.
In the continuing aftermath of Booksmart, Wilde is currently signed as the director for three more projects, so this circus is going to keep touring for a while. We’ll see how many actors she can publicly alienate with the next one.