‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Venice Review: Don’t Worry About The Gossip, Olivia Wilde’s 1950’s Dream Life-Turned-Nightmare Is Kinda Fun

I never start a review commenting on whatever the so-called Film Twitter Mafia have to say about it, sight unseen. Starting back at CinemaCon in April when its directo/co-star Olivia Wilde was served legal papers onstage regarding her custody hearings with ex Jason Sudeikis, there has been non-stop gossip about her movie Don’t Worry Darling. There has been so much of it, right up to today’s Venice Film Festival press conference (covered by my colleague Nancy Tartaglione) that you almost have to address the elephant in the room. Others can do that, but let us not forget there is also a movie here, one I was able to preview as just that a few weeks ago in Burbank. As a reviewer, to quote Being There’s Chauncey Gardner, “I like to watch,” and that means only what is on the screen.

That said, on its own terms Don’t Worry Darling is actually quite entertaining if you’re in the mood, even if Wilde’s candy-coated psychological thriller doesn’t rewrite the rules of the genre in any significant way. It is sort of a cross between Get Out, The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby with a ’50s swinging Rat Pack vibe thrown in for good measure. And maybe even by luck of timing, the shutdown of Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court provides gravitas for an underlying message here of the terror imposed by men controlling women’s bodies in this otherwise fun, if familiar, film. Despite having a prestigious Out of Competition slot for its world premiere today at Venice, this is a commercial movie more than anything else and the New Line Cinema production could do well with audiences.

‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Venice Film Festival Premiere Photo Gallery

As a director, Wilde gained critical acclaim for her 2019 teen comedy Booksmart, which even rated some awards attention. Here she shows she has the chops to create a ’50s fantasia of the seemingly perfect life in a company town within Palm Springs called Victory. With dazzling production design from Katie Byron,  bright technicolored cinematography from Matthew Libatique (A Star Is Born, Black Swan) and cool costume design from Arianne Phillips, the scene is set for what is supposed to be the American dream. We see an enclosed utopia of houses looking all the same, where the wives seem to spend much of their time keeping their homes spotless when they are not lounging around the pool with the other women after sending their husbands off to work (all in perfectly chosen different model cars of the period) to a mysterious desert location where they are creating what seems to be some sort of top-secret enterprise in the vein of the Manhattan Project — or not, because it never really is spelled out, only that all the men work there and the area is verboten for anyone else.

In the center of all this are Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) and her loving husband Jack (Harry Styles), a couple with a steamy sex life who seem genuinely in love and have landed this idealized lifestyle provided by Victory. Could it be any better than this? Well, yes. There are early indications of trouble when one of the women in the community, Margaret (Kiki Layne), is acting strangely. She knows more than she should, actually having ventured out into the off-limits desert headquarters, her newfound and concerning discovery having put her husband Ted’s (Ari’El Stachel) job in jeopardy.

This is when Alice begins to suspect there is more to Victory than meets the eye, even as the charismatic but creepily controlling CEO and motivational coach Frank (Chris Pine) promotes company man Jack to a key position of leadership. Her increasing suspicions create conflict, even coming to a boil when she confronts Frank at a dinner. The other women remain dutiful spouses though including Frank’s wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), who acts in concert with him, cheerleading the dream of  the Victory lifestyle. Similarly the vivacious Bunny (Wilde takes on the role), who is Alice’s best friend, loves what Victory offers, and keeps trying to keep her in the club. The tension ratchets up to a boil as Alice ditches a tourist tram ride to go investigate herself. You know this just is not going to end well for her.

Working from a screenplay by her Booksmart writer Katie Silberman (joined on story credit by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke), Wilde turns this fantasy world of an idyllic family life into a feminist nightmare of men, particularly Frank, with complete control over their women, even if on the surface it seems like these could be our neighbors, albeit in the ’50s mind-set. The supporting cast reinforces that and includes Nick Kroll, Sydney Chandler, Kate Berlant, Asif Ali and Douglas Smith. Timothy Simons has some very creepy moments as the company Dr. Collins. But in the end it is Wilde and her team of artisans who create the visual look that makes the story we have seen in various forms many time before work as well as it does here. Even employing some Busby Berkeley-stylized overhead shots that add to the wow factor, Wilde shows she has a good eye for this kind of thing right down to the soundtrack, with songs from the period offering a bit of irony (“life could be a dream Sh-boom”).

Pugh, in a polar opposite role to the understated woman she plays in another new film The Wonder that also had its world premiere this weekend (at Telluride), continues to show her range even when the character ventures into some pretty ludicrous situations, setting out into the forbidden secret desert location alone being one of them. Styles, as he did in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and in the upcoming Toronto Film Festival premiere of My Policeman, shows he is the real deal as an actor and has great promise. Pine makes a slick, almost cult-like figure a chilling but actually plausible villain.

Producers are Wilde, Silberman, Miri Yoon and Roy Lee. Warner Bros opens the film wide in theaters September 23.

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