Soon into the candy-colored feminist gothic “Don’t Worry Darling,” the director Olivia Wilde tips her hand. The movie takes place in a desert town, Victory, where everything looks nice and pretty, including the midcentury homes at the end of a cul-de-sac. It’s a friendly neighborhood and, given that the story is set in the 1950s, more diverse than you’d expect. But Wilde lets you know straightaway that there’s something off here: Everything is too tidy, too uniform and too, too perfect, including the women’s smiles.
Shy, bold, coquettish or mocking, a woman’s smile is richly signifying, something that Wilde, an actress turned director, certainly knows. It can be a mystery, an invitation, a deflection; sometimes it’s a reward, although one that comes with a cost. “It is the Sleeping Beauty’s smile that crowns the efforts of Prince Charming,” as Simone de Beauvoir writes in “The Second Sex,” the captive princess’ gratitude validating the prince’s heroism. The men in the movie aren’t charming or heroic, yet the women smile constantly, stretching their lipsticked mouths so wide, it’s a wonder their faces don’t crack.
One does, though it takes an interminably long time for the fissures to become seismic. Something starts troubling Alice (Florence Pugh) soon after the movie opens. She lives on the cul-de-sac, and like the other wives, she waves goodbye to her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), as he drives off to work. At night, cocktail in hand, Alice greets him, an impeccably coifed and dressed present that he eagerly unwraps. Much of the rest of the time, she cleans their house, polishing and vacuuming and washing — the cinematography is suitably bright and crisp — to the sound of a mystery man’s droning voice.
It’s a good, intriguing setup. Everything has been buffed to gleam, including Wilde, who plays Bunny, one of Alice’s neighbors. But you quickly notice the lack of mess, and especially the relative absence of those agents of chaos, a.k.a. children. There’s a touch of Stepford to this happy, shiny place, and a dash of comedy in its excesses. But it’s obvious and blunt, and early on when the wives wave bye, all following similar choreography, I flashed on the evil planet in Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” where everything — houses, adults and kids bouncing balls — looks eerily near-identical.
Alice has clearly tumbled down a weird rabbit hole. But one problem with “Don’t Worry Darling” is that Wilde is so taken with the world that she’s meticulously created — with its colorful veneer, martini glasses and James Bond poster — that she can’t let it go. So, as Alice floats through her dream-life, Wilde shows off this dollhouse, taking the character to a country club, onto a trolley and to visit Jack’s charismatic boss, Frank (a silkily menacing Chris Pine), whose home looks like a bachelor’s pad out of an antique issue of Playboy, except that this one comes with a wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan).
Frank and his male employees’ extreme deference to him suggest there’s more to this world than its glossy exterior, as do some period-inappropriate details, like the topless woman walking poolside in public and Alice wearing only a man’s dress shirt outside her front door. But even as the dissonance builds and Alice grasps that something is amiss, the movie stalls. Alice becomes lost in thought, looks puzzled, hallucinates, looks less puzzled and so on as Wilde embraces a visual motif — the circle — that, after the second, third, fourth time she deploys it, loses its punch and usefulness, becoming an unintended metaphor for a movie that keeps returning to the same point.
Wilde does some fine work here, despite hammering the same notes early and often. (The screenplay is by Katie Silberman, one of the writers of “Booksmart,” Wilde’s more successful feature directing debut.) But she isn’t a strong enough filmmaker at this point to navigate around the story’s weaknesses, much less transcend them. That’s especially tough on the actors, who — with the exception of Pine — deliver one-dimensional performances that never hint at what might be churning inside their attractive heads. For her part, Pugh is too vibrant, too alive and just too vigorously full-bodied from the get-go for a role that calls for a slow-dawning awakening.
If Pugh’s performance never gets beneath the shiny, satirical surface, it’s because there’s no place for it or her to go. The movie’s take on gender roles is stinging, but its targets are amorphous (yes, agreed, sexism is bad) and carefully nonpartisan, and its take on the prison-house of the traditional feminine role — what Betty Friedan called the “happy housewife heroine” in her 1963 classic “The Feminine Mystique” — is shallow. Many cycles of feminist progress and sexist backlash have happened since that book hit, but, fairly or not, the current political climate and assaults on women’s rights demand more than a clever mash-up between “Mad Men” and “Get Out.”
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