Harry Styles and Florence Pugh can't save Don't Worry Darling's shallow story

Harry Styles and Florence Pugh star as the young married couple Jack and Alice in a scene from Don't Worry Darling.  (Warner Bros. Entertainment - image credit)
Harry Styles and Florence Pugh star as the young married couple Jack and Alice in a scene from Don't Worry Darling. (Warner Bros. Entertainment - image credit)

When it was first announced, Don't Worry Darling, seemed to be the ideal project to bring actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde's career to the next level. A hot script, A-list stars — what better way to build on the buzz from her hilarious feature film debut Booksmart?

And now here we are, Wilde ushered onto The Late Show to do damage control after rumours and stories of behind-the-scenes drama followed the film like a pack of paparazzi.

No, Harry Styles did not spit on Chris Pine, she told host Stephen Colbert.

Yes, she had to replace Shia LaBeouf, who was originally cast as a lead with Florence Pugh.

Wilde has been put on the spot about a lot of stories, including competing narratives about why LaBeouf was replaced with pop star Harry Styles, and questions about why Pugh seemingly stopped promoting the film and stood apart from the director on the red carpet at the Venice International Film Festival.

But as Wilde herself suggested to Colbert, there is a hypocrisy at the heart of the focus on the production. "I don't feel like my male directing colleagues are answering questions about their cast," Wilde said.

There's also more than a whiff of misogyny in the idea that Wilde's set was especially chaotic. It's not unusual for directors to change actors. But the question of what we see and the assumptions we readily believe are at the heart of her new film.

Warner Bros. Entertainment
Warner Bros. Entertainment

Don't Worry Darling opens in a 1950s cul-de-sac in the desert. In a perfectly synchronized suburban setting, all the wives make breakfasts for their husbands, then teeter onto the driveway in heels to kiss the menfolk goodbye. The most lovestruck of all are Jack and Alice, the young married couple played by Styles and Pugh.

And where do the men drive to each day? They call it the Victory Project — a mysterious instillation hidden in the desert where Frank, the leader played by Pine, motivates the men and applauds the wives for their dutiful service.

While Styles has occupied the headlines, Don't Worry Darling is undoubtedly Pugh's film, with the singer-turned-actor along for the ride.  At the outset we see her coasting through her days. Cooking and cleaning. Shopping and lounging. Though soon her picture-perfect existence starts to crack, with with empty eggs that crumble strangely in her hands. A neighbour who she calls a friend (although we never see a connection) has breakdown that's dismissed as an accident. Haunted by strange flashbacks, Alice begins to suspect something sinister is at the heart of this American dream.

But you can't fault Pugh, or "Miss Flo" as Wilde once called her. The script may be shallow, the plot predictable, but she gives it her all, particularly as reality begins to fracture. At best there's a tenaciousness to Pugh, a steely resolve that was first glimpsed in the fantastic 2016 film Lady Macbeth.

What she's working against is a film that presumes instead of truly convincing us. We're meant to believe her devotion to Jack is the reason she toils happily at home. Yes, we watch the young beautiful people doing adult things with and to each other. But love is more than being horny and there's little here to cement the relationship we've been sold.

As the husband, Styles is aggressively adequate and fulfils his function. More interesting is the Svengali in the polo shirt, Pine, as the dear leader Frank. Like Big Brother meets Tony Robbins, he's on every television and radio whispering to his acolytes with that Captain Kirk tenor: "There's a beauty in control."

The control he's talking about is the freedom the women have sacrificed to fuel this fantasy, providing their husbands sex and food with a smile.

In interviews, Wilde has actually suggested Canadian author Jordan Peterson was the inspiration for Frank and his archaic worldview.

Once revealed, there is a truly disturbing idea at the heart of Don't Worry Darling, but neither Wilde nor her writers are interested in wrestling with the implications.

Rather than truly engaging with it, Don't Worry Darling dances around the edges, missing the opportunity to make this 1950s thriller into something more urgent. Instead, as the scales fall from Alice's eyes, logic is sacrificed for superficial thrills and spills. The result, a slickly packaged story disguising a missed opportunity.

Warner Bros. Entertainment
Warner Bros. Entertainment