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Harry Styles and Florence Pugh can't save "Don't Worry Darling"

Don't Worry Darling

Starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, Kate Berlant, Timothy Simons, Sydney Chandler, Douglas Smith, Asif Ali and Ari’el Stachel. Written by Katie Silberman from a story by Carey and Shane Van Dyke. Directed by Olivia Wilde. Opens Friday at theatres everywhere. 123 minutes. 14A

⭐⭐ (out of 4)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The most interesting thing about Olivia Wilde’s derivative dystopian thriller “Don’t Worry Darling” isn’t superstar Harry Styles or the film’s lead star, Florence Pugh.

It’s the Kaufmann Desert House, the modernist marvel designed by Richard Neutra and made famous by the 1970 Slim Aarons photo “Poolside Gossip.” The former abode of Barry Manilow, the Palm Springs landmark serves as both inspiration and setting for “Don’t Worry Darling,” where it makes its movie debut. How amusing to think of the current gossip the well-coiffed loungers in the Aarons pic could be dishing.

"Poolside Gossip," a famous 1970 photo by Slim Aarons, shows the Kaufmann Desert House, a landmark modernist Palm Springs abode that was an inspiration and setting for "Don't Worry Darling," a dystopian thriller starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles.

There’s the reported feud between actor/director Wilde and Pugh, provoked by co-star Shia LaBeouf’s sudden exit from the film. He was replaced by singer Styles, who also replaced Wilde’s husband, Jason Sudeikis, as the object of Wilde’s affections. Oh, and did you hear that Styles spit on co-star Chris Pine at the Venice Film Festival? (Spoiler alert: that last bit has been proven false.)

So much commotion for such a sedate film, which looks fabulous — the 1950s never shone so brightly — but doesn’t have an original thought to ponder, a logical path to pursue or thrills beyond the swirl of a swizzle stick. All we are expected to do, really, is to gawk at the beautiful people, homes and cars on display.

Even to name examples of similar and better dystopian tales could constitute a genuine spoiler for the far-too-obvious revelations of the screenplay by Katie Silberman, who wrote Wilde’s first feature, the teen comedy “Booksmart.”

An even bigger giveaway, impossible to ignore, is Chris Pine’s smirk.

As Frank, CEO of the film’s shady Victory Project, employer of the docile husbands of obedient wives in the patriarchal 1950s company town of Victory, Pine exudes the telltale confidence of megalomaniacs everywhere. The world he’s so eager to change will be his to rule.

Frank’s company deals in the “development of progressive materials,” which obviously has nothing to do with progressive ideals regarding the roles of men and women. I like to think the lads are creating the future toy phenomenon known as Hot Wheels, judging by the candy-coloured autos they drive in unison each day to the mountainside HQ of the Victory Project.

All Frank asks of his employees and their wives is unstinting loyalty (read: obedience) and absolute discretion.

Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan) leads a ballet class themed on “beauty in control” that the wives attend, when they’re not swanning around the swimming pools of their designer homes, getting pleasantly sozzled by noon.

Into this artificial paradise come Alice and Jack Chambers (Pugh and Styles), a young couple so crazy in love they engage in carnal pleasure on the dining room table as a roast beef and trimmings tumble to the floor.

Alice is at first content to play the role of the happy housewife, barefoot as she vacuums, dusts and cooks, or just hanging out and drinking with her best friend Bunny (Wilde) while optimistic pop songs fill their ears. (If there’s one tune in the film’s ’50s soundtrack that especially fits the mood, it’s “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream),” by the Crew-Cuts, a Toronto vocal quartet.)

The film slowly shifts to thriller mode after Alice begins to notice imperfections within the apparent perfection of Victory life. Eggshells crack empty; roads lead nowhere; and conversations about the Victory Project are abruptly hushed.

Vague warnings voiced by an unhappy Victory resident, Margaret (KiKi Layne), whom the town doctor dismisses as depressed and delusional, further pique Alice’s curiosity. She intends to find out what’s really going on.

Pugh’s emphatic acting helps paper over the cracks and chasms of the story; she’s an expressive performer even in the most absurd of circumstances. Styles, in his first major movie role, is less of a fascination but then, so is his character, Jack. As for Pine, he gives good smirk as the sinister Frank.

The real draw of “Don’t Worry Darling” is the look of the film. If there are any awards possibilities, they’re for the sun-drenched and lens-flared cinematography of Matthew Libatique (“A Star Is Born”), the production design of Katie Byron (“Booksmart”), the costumes of Arianne Phillips (“Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood”), and the hair and makeup of Heba Thorisdottir and Jaime Leigh McIntosh, who have also teamed for “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Hollywood epic.

Will pretty pictures get the job done at the box office for a film empty of ideas? Don’t worry, darlings, we’ll know soon enough. 🌓

(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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