Olivia Wilde Goes The Mystery Box Route With ‘The Stepford Wives’ Meets ‘The Matrix’ [Venice]

Dec 28, 2022

Following her outstanding and irreverent directorial debut, “Booksmart,” actor-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde returns with a much more ambitious effort in “Don’t Worry Darling.” Taking the mystery box route, “Twilight Zone” meets “The Stepford Wives,” with a little dash of “The Matrix,” the audacious film is ultimately a misfire because of its overextending mystery conceit. But regardless, it’s a well-crafted film that shows Wilde’s debut was no fluke. And if Jordan Peele took social-political dimensions about race and melded them with horror, “Don’t Worry Darling,” seems to take similar cues and inspiration, melding social ideas of patriarchal societies, the female experience, and the notion of feminism and control, with fantastical genre.
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Set in the 1950s, “Don’t Worry Darling” is set in a dreamy, lush suburban utopia, that celebrates the design, fashion, music and elegant style of the 1950s. Married and very horny, Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) Chambers live in the enclave of Victory, an idealized, affluent community, and experimental town where by day, the husbands go and work on the secretive Victory Project and the wives stay at home, cook, and tend to their children.
The Chambers’ neighbors and community members include Bunny (Olivia Wilde), Alice’s best friend, her husband Dean (Nick Kroll), Peg (Kate Berlant), her husband Peter (Asif Ali), plus young newlywed newcomers Violet (Sydney Chandler) and Bill (Douglas Smith), who are welcomed into their social clique of after-work cocktails, Hors D’oeuvres snacking, cool Motown dancing and coquettish flirtations.
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Optimism abounds in this privileged village of the lucky few elites special enough to be there, and it’s propped up by the inspiring Victory CEO Frank (a charming, but inscrutable Chris Pine), a guru figure who espouses the dreaded three-letter word of “changing the world,” today’s code and warning for CFO hubris. Something of an enigmatic Elon Musk, he is their omniscient social conscience and moral champion, advocating the righteous “development of progressive materials” that Victory creates. While his enthusiastic sentiments are all pretty vague and meaningless, no one questions the empty platitudes, no one is looking to rock the boat.
This insular paradise is really bliss, that is until one of the local wives, Margaret (KiKi Layne) starts to unravel. She’s seemingly seen something she shouldn’t, peered behind the curtain and the cracks are starting to show. Of course, it’s Alice and her sense of empathy that’s triggered. When she witnesses what appears to be a suicide attempt by Margaret that’s quickly covered up by the Victory security communities, her questions start to chafe at the dark fascia behind this entire façade.
But as you can probably guess, “Don’t Worry Darling” has a big, upending twist, and it’s where the movie falls apart. Moreover, the dissatisfying revelation of the picture tends to underscore the superficiality of the first act. Wilde seems enamored with 1950s style, music, and design. While it’s aesthetically pleasing, and carefully considered throughout the film, when the film unveils that it doesn’t have much more depth to offer—just a big, daring concept that’s a little too overconfident in itself, the early parts of the film ring a bit hollower. Everyone loves Brenton Wood‘s enchanting “The Oogum Boogum Song,” and the chic, modish visuals Wilde puts next to them make for some lively early moments. But without a deeper substance in the last half, groovy dinner parties are just that.
And while, “Don’t Worry Darling” is trying to say something about control, manipulation, scheming, subjugation, and male-dominated conquest, much of it from a patriarchal tower (which makes the ‘50s setting so perfect) when the curtain is finally pulled back, Wilde’s film collapses under the weight of a high-concept genre riff that the film is not strong enough to shoulder.
Up until the film’s big conceptual twist, “Don’t Worry Darling” is a rock-solid little psychological thriller, but that upending curveball—results will vary for audience members, and don’t be surprised if many are on the hate side of that spiral—really unravels the story and bursts your suspension of disbelief. However, it should be said, even after that big reveal kind of sinks the movie, Wilde’s impressive craft is still on display. You may find yourself immediately emotionally divested from the movie and its outcome, however, it’s remarkable how entertaining that last act and its big set pieces are regardless. In this regard, when “Don’t Worry Darling” fully reveals itself, it may not totally work, but it feels aspirational, and bigger in scope, Wilde seemingly trying to do her best Jordan Peele impression in that last act. One can’t even help but feel the influence of Christopher Nolan in some of those final moments with big vista-like scenes in the desert and swelling music. To that end, cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s photography throughout is terrific, modish initially and then expansive and amazing in that final act. Similarly, John Powell’s score—much of it centered on breathy, hushed and suspenseful female choral voices—is tremendous and does much to lift the third act, even when the conceptual jig is up.
From a Blacklist script that feels a little Blacklist-y—sometimes prioritizing high-concept over the emotional goods that made the first half of the movie so compelling—credited to Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke, and Katie Silberman, “Don’t Worry Darling” doesn’t really come together in the end. Boldness and ambition may get the best of the film, but just like “Booksmart,” which announced the promising beginning of an intriguing directorial voice, Wilde proves she’s not a one-hit-wonder, at least technically and artistically. “Don’t Worry Darling” may be a misstep, but Wilde’s still got a flair for cinema that feels worth keeping an eye on. [C]
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Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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