You probably know about all the “Don’t Worry Darling” hoo-ha. In case you missed it . . .
Olivia Wilde, who directed and has a supporting role, said some not-nice things about Florence Pugh, the movie’s female lead. Wilde and Harry Styles, who also stars in the movie, are reputed to have conducted an on-set romance. Shia LaBeouf was originally cast in the role Styles plays. Wilde says she fired him. LaBeouf says, no, actually, he quit. The not-nice things about Pugh were in an exchange of messages between Wilde and LaBeouf, specifically a video that Wilde had sent LaBeouf, that he released in rebuttal.
Also (yes, there’s more), earlier this month Pugh didn’t do publicity for the movie at the Venice Film Festival — until she did. Styles and Chris Pine, who’s also in the movie, did do all their Venice duties. Some people claimed to see Styles spit on Pine.
Got all that? There might be a quiz at the end of the review.
Pugh plays Alice, who’s married to Jack. Styles plays Jack. Their neighbor Bunny is played by Wilde. They live in a Palm Springs-like desert community, all palm trees and swimming pools and light so sharp it could slice bread. The place is suburban subdivision as Valhalla. The production designer, Katie Byron, clearly had a lot of fun. Based on the way people dress and the look of the cars (Jack drives a vintage T-Bird), it seems to be the ‘50s or early ‘60s. There are some anomalies, though, and — well, hold that thought.
Alice and Jack are still in the lovey-dovey phase of marriage. “It’s like a perpetual honeymoon,” Bunny says, if you know what she means (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). When not loveying and doveying, Alice vacuums the wall-to-wall carpet, scrub-scrub-scrubs the tub, and cooks up a storm. Do not look for “The Feminine Mystique” on the bookshelves. As for Jack, he and all the other husbands head off to the office each morning. What they do there is a mystery. So’s the nature of the company they work for, something called the Victory Project.
Presiding over the project is Frank. Already “Darling” has begun to give off serious “Stepford Wives” (1975, 2004), and “Get Out” (2017) vibes, wherein phony perfection meets unmistakable menace. There’s also a touch of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery.” With Frank’s arrival, we get “The Master” (2012). As played by a very good Pine, Frank’s a sexier, more ominous version of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader in that movie. Michael Wood memorably described that character as having “an air of benevolence that would scare the life out of anyone not seeking to grovel.” That’s Frank, all right.
“What are they hiding?” Alice asks Jack. “You have to admit that something is off.” Eventually, we’ll find out. The build-up takes too long, though the big reveal offers the consolation of being a Big Reveal (yes, capitalized). No hints given here as to what it might entail, other than to say that if you’ve ever wondered where Douglas Sirk could overlap with Philip K. Dick, you’ll find your answer here. What we learn explains a lot of those anomalies, though it creates even bigger ones.
Wilde’s directorial debut was “Booksmart” (2019). This is quite a departure, though both movies share an attentiveness to how nonplussed this society can be by strong, intelligent females. Visually, Wilde takes chances: recurring black-and-white fantasy shots of a Busby Berkeley-like chorus line, unsteady handheld camera, lots and lots of overhead shots, a big chase sequence in the desert.
Her most successful inspiration is aural. Calling attention to the chilly artifice of the characters’ lives is the warmth of the period songs heard on the jukebox soundtrack: Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Antonio Carlos Jobim.
“Darling” never quite ignites. The closest it gets to ignition is Pugh’s performance. Styles is perfectly fine, but it’s her movie. Twenty years ago, Reese Witherspoon would have played Alice, or maybe Kate Winslet. Pugh could be Winslet’s kid sister: the sulky face, the reined-in intelligence. The movie’s single most astonishing moment comes in a scene before the Big Reveal. Alice is in her kitchen and casually wraps her head in cling wrap. It’s a horrifying, completely unexpected image. As only the best metaphors can, it works on a direct, here-it-is level — and ramifies far beyond.
“Darling” has elements of satire and dystopian sci-fi and mystery. Depending on how up to date you are with your dues in the Harry Styles Fan Club, it’s even a romance — for a while, anyway. At its heart, though, the movie is a feminist parable about conformity and affluence. It doesn’t tell viewers anything they don’t already know. It does remind them of things they might prefer to ignore. That ignorance is a different kind of scandal from the one that “Darling” has had so many people talking about.
DON’T WORRY DARLING
Directed by Olivia Wilde. Written by Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke. Starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 122 minutes. R (sexuality, violent content, language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.