It already feels like a long-ago, distant era. England still had a queen; Boston didn’t have an Orange Line and the whole world spent the waning days of summer watching in rapt fascination as the press tour promoting “Don’t Worry Darling” imploded in a dazzling display of passive aggression and unforced errors. The sophomore directorial effort of actress Olivia Wilde had been a tabloid sensation ever since she’d allegedly dumped her beloved TV star husband Jason Sudeikis for pop idol Harry Styles during shooting, and rumors of a fallout between Wilde and the film’s star Florence Pugh had gossip mavens analyzing Instagram likes as if they were deciphering the Da Vinci Code.
NPR doesn’t offer an explainer about silly celebrity rumors often, but the “Don’t Worry Darling” debacle was so delicious it turned even the most high-minded of us into catty rubberneckers, with cellphone footage from the Venice Film Festival premiere analyzed as if it were the Zapruder film and a vast subsection of the internet remaining convinced that while taking his seat, Styles had angrily spat upon co-star Chris Pine. It was a preposterous allegation and enormous fun to investigate — the kind of harmless, empty-calorie distraction one can delight in while the rest of the world feels like it's falling apart at the seams.
Alas, such stories age like milk, and the other day at work, somebody asked me, “You mean that movie hasn’t come out yet?” Three weeks and several scandal half-lives since "Spitgate," “Don’t Worry Darling” is finally opening in U.S. theaters not with a bang but a whimper. Hardly the career-ending disaster early word had promised, it’s just boring. This is the worst-case scenario for a picture in this position. Had the film actually been awful it would be a fine finale to the whole circus sideshow and possibly a new camp classic, a la “Cats.” Or I would have loved it even more if the movie had been actually interesting so I could condescendingly lecture people too distracted by the bad buzz to properly appreciate it.
One of the experiences that radicalized me as a young writer was attending a press screening of the cursed Bennifer vehicle “Gigli,” which arrived on a similar tsunami of terrible publicity. I sat in the auditorium watching all of the older, more respected film critics trying out the meanest lines from their reviews on each other to much back-slapping laughter and mutual appreciation. The thing was, the movie hadn’t started yet. They could have just stayed home. (While “Gigli” will never be confused with a good film, it was at least fascinating in its failures and, sandwiched between “Daredevil” and “Paycheck,” only the third-worst Ben Affleck movie released that year.)
If only “Don’t Worry Darling” had been as adventurous as “Gigli.” Handsomely mounted and hollow, the film stars the ferociously talented Pugh as a happy housewife in an ersatz 1950s suburban utopia somewhere way out in the middle of the desert. The husbands all work for something called the Victory Project, a top-secret lab where the women aren’t allowed. Which is fine by them because these ladies are content to spend their days cooking and cleaning, waiting for their husbands to come home and satisfy them. Styles plays Pugh’s significant other and the singer’s superfans have been ready to riot over a dinner table sex scene that’s fairly steamy but also looks like a waste of a perfectly good pot roast.
We can tell right away that something’s off about Pugh’s postcard-perfect existence. (The first hint something’s amiss is that the gorgeous next-door neighbor played by Wilde is married to Nick Kroll.) The men all exhibit a cultish devotion to their blowhard philosopher boss, played by a preening Chris Pine. Our heroine starts experiencing odd hallucinations borrowed from Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion,” and by the time another neighbor climbs out onto the roof and cuts her own throat, we’re all well aware that there’s a glitch or two in this Stepford Matrix.
The biggest problem with “Don’t Worry Darling” is that it takes the audience maybe 15 minutes to come to the same conclusion that Pugh finally figures out after a full two hours. It’s a drag being so far ahead of the characters the entire time, and Wilde’s maddeningly repetitive structure makes the viewer feel as trapped as the protagonist. Nearly every scene starts with a perky pop song and some nifty art direction that then shades into the sinister with eerie, echoey sound effects. The shiny surfaces are shot with a luscious luster by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, but there’s only so long you can stare at pretty production design before tedium takes over.
The movie seems to want to be a satire about gender roles in America, which is odd because it’s also completely humorless. (Wilde doesn’t seem to understand that the Polanski movies she’s stealing from happen to be hilarious.) The screenplay’s insights into identity are shallow at best and the whole thing is so obvious and on the nose that the main character is even named Alice. “Don’t Worry Darling” does leave one wondering why we still haven’t found a visual code for conformity more up-to-date than 1950s suburbia. If you’ve seen David Lynch's “Blue Velvet” or Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” music video, you’re pretty much already caught up here.
What pulls you through is a powerful performance by Pugh, so charismatic and compelling that you root for her even when she’s being a complete idiot. The “Midsommar” starlet has been a miracle worker these past few years, not just the only actress capable of making me care about something happening in the Marvel Universe but also turning the awful Amy into my favorite March sister in Greta Gerwig’s glorious “Little Women.” (I was always ride or die for Jo, so this was a big deal.) Styles gets swallowed up by their scenes together, barely registering on the big screen. He’s not a terrible actor, just awkward and untrained. Like the movie itself, if he had been worse "Don't Worry Darling" might not have been so dull.
But hey, we’ll always have Venice.
“Don’t Worry Darling” opens in theaters on Friday, Sept. 23.