‘Don’t Worry Darling’ review: Florence Pugh not enough to redeem Olivia Wilde’s second tabloid film

The dark mystery concept marks a stark departure from Wilde’s impressive debut with “Booksmart,” a small coming-of-age film that hit all the right notes. Given a chance to step up in class, the actor-turned-director has assembled a top-notch cast, but he teases too long a buildup in a story and it doesn’t pay off handsomely; In fact, the ending becomes what the film’s promoters are trying to avoid, namely chaos.

With its spiritual debt to “The Stepford Wives” and its careful depiction of suburbia, there are also more recent points of comparison, such as the George Clooney-directed “Suburbicon.” There’s even a bit of “Edward Scissorhands,” where the men drive to work on a pastel view of a picture-perfect street while their wives wave goodbye.

Alice (Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles) seem to be living the dream, partying hard with their co-workers in the 1950s-style planned community where they all live. The two are incredibly hot for each other, almost wickedly so, to hear Alice’s friend Bunny (played by Wilde) tell it.

On closer inspection, however, it all seems a little too perfect, and therefore suspicious, to begin with that no one will explain what exactly it is working for something called the Victory Project. There’s also a cult-like devotion to boss Frank (Chris Pine, as Pugh, a cut above the material), who manages to enthusiastically admit that his charges are “changing the world”.

If the goal is some kind of happily-ever-after agreement, this gives way to what looks like gaslighting as Alice begins to sense something is wrong, fueled by strange dreams, surreal images, and the behavior of a neighbor.

Based on a script given to Shane and Carey Van Dyke (Dick Van Dyke’s grandchildren) along with “Booksmart’s” Katie Silberman, “Don’t Worry Darling” falls into the creative trap of following the pattern of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” is without the kind of revelation that would elevate that series to a more memorable level. While the film has something to say about gender politics and misogyny, it’s not articulated well enough to distinguish itself from any other film.

Given that, the New York Times’ question about the off-screen relationship controversy — “Will Spiraling Publicity Hurt ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ at the Box Office?” — it seems exactly upside down; rather, the real issue is whether such curiosity, including Zapruder-like analysis of stars at the Venice Film Festival premiere, can spark interest in an otherwise non-existent film? (The film is released by Warner Bros., as is CNN, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery).
Practically speaking, despite the heat surrounding Styles as he ramps up his acting career, the main draw should be Pugh, with his rising profile — Oscar nominations for “Little Women,” “Black Widow” and the upcoming “Dune” — will be seen in another movie, “Wonder,” in November.

After Wilde’s impressive debut, there’s always hope to see if a filmmaker can pull off another hit. By that measure, “Don’t Worry Darling” feels more like a modest setback than a major disappointment, but ultimately, it’s hard to call this project a triumph.

“Don’t Worry Darling” opens in US theaters on September 23. Rated R. The film Warner Bros. Studios, like CNN is distributed by Warner Bros. All part of Discovery.