Harry Styles is charismatic in Olivia Wilde’s messy sci-fi thriller

Dir: Olivia Wilde. With: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, Kate Berlant. 122 minutes

Don’t worry honey. Olivia WildeThe new movie has generated a lot of negative buzz ahead of its world premiere in Venice today. His star Florence Poug (who didn’t appear at the Venice press conference due to conflicting commitments…officially, at least) appears to be distancing herself from the project amid rumors of a “falling out” between her and Wilde. Shia LaBeouf disputed Wilde’s claims that he was fired from production and released a video from the director that apparently proves his story. Gossip columnists have been in a frenzy over Wilde’s relationship with the pop idol Harry Styles, who took over the role of LaBeouf. On top of all that, there are the allegations that Styles was paid three times as much as Pugh despite playing the title character. The morbid anticipation has therefore constructed that don’t worry darling could well be the wreckage of this year’s festival.

It’s not the disaster some predicted – but it’s a messy, convoluted affair with some very contrived plots. Styles gives a surprisingly dull, underpowered performance like Jack. To be fair, he plays a very boring character, a kind of Stepford husband. Jack lives with his wife Alice (Pugh) in a bright and very wealthy 1950s desert side community, working alongside many other husbands who look and behave just like him. The men are all employees of The Victory Project, a shadowy scheme run by Frank (Chris Pine) that aspires to “change the world”. Frank is a svelte but sinister guru with voyeuristic tendencies who demands total obedience. Wilde plays Bunny, Alice’s glamorous neighbor and best friend.

While the men in their identical suits go to work, the women stay at home. They take care of the children (if they have any), vacuum and cook, and take dance lessons. Everything about their consumer paradise seems synthetic. There’s a lot of booze and sex, but even that lacks heart. One scene sees Jack running into Alice just as he comes home from work; it’s reminiscent of the famous steamy encounter between Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange on the kitchen table in The postman always rings twice. Here, however, the temperature hardly rises. The styles lack charisma. Wilde includes a scene in which her character dances onstage after winning an “employee of the month” style award, but it’s far less arresting than burlesque veteran Dita Von Teese, who has a cameo performing an outlandish striptease. Jack is a one-dimensional figure, and the One Direction star gives him no hidden depth. Pugh is easily the liveliest and most compelling personality in the movie. She plays Alice in such a spirited way that most of the other characters seem robotic in comparison.

The screenplay by Katie Silberman (who co-wrote Wilde’s excellent feature debut Library) seems inspired in equal measure by The best of worlds and Sylvia Plath The glass bell. It has spooky and intriguing elements, and Wilde throws in some spectacular visual flourishes, including Busby Berkeley-esque chorus routines and nightmarish sequences in which Alice suspects she is truly losing her mind as her peers would have her believe.

don’t worry darling is beautifully shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (best known for his work on Darren Aronofsky’s films, including the director’s current Venice nominee The whale). It has immaculate production and costume design. Beneath its polished and highly elegant exterior sheen, however, is as hollow as the lives of its pampered but empty-headed protagonists. You can quite easily understand why Alice is so desperate to get out of the community – and perhaps why some cast members have been so reluctant to endorse the film itself.

In the utopian, misogynistic, Mad Men-like the world that Silberman and Wilde conjured up, women’s roles are as wives and mothers. They don’t work. And if they express the slightest dissatisfaction with their lives, they are ostracized, treated as if they are mentally unstable, stuffed with pills and given shock treatment. They all live in a golden cage, forbidden to express independent opinions or even venture too far from their own front door. Pugh’s Alice is far too determined to put up with all these restrictions. When she thinks she saw a plane crash in the mountains, she sets off across the desert to offer help. That’s when his troubles begin. Friends turn against her. She is called a troublemaker who asks too many questions. But what begins as a dystopian psychological thriller briefly (and absurdly) turns into a Fast and Furious-style chase movie in its last scenes. The plot also has a very odd framing device, which may leave viewers scratching their heads.

‘Don’t Worry Darling’ hits UK cinemas on September 23

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