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

The darkly mysterious concept represents a marked departure from Wilde’s impressive debut with “Booksmart”, a small coming-of-age film that hit all the right notes. An opportunity to step up in the class, the actor turned director has put together a topnotch cast, but in a story that teases the buildup a little too long and does not pay it off very nicely; indeed, the ending becomes what the driving force of the film speaks of trying to avoid – namely chaos.

Owing a spiritual debt to “The Stepford Wives” with its carefully groomed image of suburbia, there are also plenty of recent points of comparison, such as the George Clooney-directed “Suburbicon.” There’s even an “Edward Scissorhands” club in the pastel vision of a perfect cul de sac where the men drive single file to work while their wives dutifully wave goodbye.

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

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

If the goal is some kind of happy-talk conformity, that gives way to what looks like gaslighting as Alice begins to sense that something is wrong, fueled by strange dreams, surreal images and the behavior of a neighbor.

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

Given that, the question posed by the New York Times regarding the controversy regarding the off-screen relationships – “Will the spiraling publicity harm ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ at the box office?” — seems right on the head; rather, the real issue is whether that curiosity, including the Zapruder film-like analysis of the stars at the Venice Film Festival premiere, can spur interest in an otherwise nondescript film? (The film is being released by Warner Bros., as well as CNN, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Practically speaking, despite the heat surrounding Styles as he ramps up his acting career, the primary draw should be Pugh, whose growing profile — with an Oscar nomination for “Little Women,” “Black Widow” and the upcoming “Dune” — will see in another movie, “Wonder,” come November.

After the impressive debut of Wilde, there is always anticipation to see if a filmmaker can achieve another success. 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 victory.

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