By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Presenting: An article about “Don’t Worry Darling” that is actually about the movie and not about whether the four main stars are talking to each other and why.
“Don’t Worry Darling,” released to theaters on Sept. 23, is Olivia Wilde’s second full-length feature as a director (the first being “Booksmart” in 2019). Wilde stars in the film as Bunny, alongside Florence Pugh as Alice, Harry Styles as Jack, and Chris Pine as Frank. I’m leaving out a large cast here, including Gemma Chan (more about her later!), as these four are the only people we’ve heard about for the past several weeks, it seems, and for which reason I barely wanted to see the actual film. I’m so glad I did, though, because it’s worth all of the hype it did not get.
It seems we stood and talked like this before/We looked at each other in the same way then/But I can’t remember where or when/The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore/The smile you are smiling you were smiling then/But I can’t remember where or when.
Cue 1930s music on a scratchy phonograph in a too-good-to-be-true (‘cause it always is, isn’t it?) 50s style world. BTW, context changes everything. The same song (featured here) that gives “When Harry Met Sally” a kicked-back, fall-in-New-York vibe, ends this movie with a freaked out, viewing-everyone-during-your-drive-home-with-great-suspicion vibe.
Alice is married to Jack. They live an idyllic life in an idyllic neighborhood next to several other couples who live the same idyllic life, all thanks to what is called Victory Project—which Frank runs and where the men work. Alice and Jack seem to be truly in love (you’re looking for the cracks right away), and are teased about the fact that their passion does not include children (the most desirable child being male, and every woman should desire one or two or seven). Everyone drives gorgeous old-fashioned cars and dresses and drinks à la “Mad Men.” Every night is a party. The men always come home to a freshly coiffed wife who hands them a drink (the first of many; I don’t think they drink anything but alcohol), and all is well as long as everyone stays “discrete” and “in control.” What’s the opposite of control? Chaos. Frank is not a fan of chaos.
Every morning after the husbands leave, the women go about their traditional housewife chores (these are the most content and best dressed window washers and bathtub scrubbers you have ever seen in your life), all the while listening—apparently willingly, so it’s no “1984”—to radio propaganda about potential and vision and loyalty and mission. “What are we doing? Changing the world!” Housework done, it’s time for a day of Hollywood-style leisure for the ladies, even though they are in the middle of the desert. They are trolleyed back and forth to well-heeled ballet class and then shopping, where they never pay for anything but just charge it to….something. They don’t really know or care. All they know is that they never ask questions, such as about the one friend who goes crazy, nor about the mysterious project “headquarters” where they are forbidden to go. “The only thing they ask…is that we stay here where it’s safe.”
Ballet class is run by Shelley, played by Chan, who we recently saw as “Sersi” in “Eternals” and who is well known for her role as the impeccable “Astrid” in “Crazy Rich Asians.” (Where is our sequel, by the way?) You begin to know something is up at the ballet class. First of all, all the other ladies are terrified of Shelley, and second of all, she chants, “There is beauty in control. There is grace in symmetry,” which is creepy, while the women go about their perfect routines.
You know that sooner or later someone new is going to start to fall apart, start to “see things that aren’t there,” to have “delusions,” to act “hysterical” (catchwords that have been used to gaslight women for centuries and are used the same way in the Victory Project to keep them in line). This time, it’s Alice. She starts having strange visions, but she also happens to witness a couple of things she shouldn’t have (which are conveniently explained away into a new version). It’s not just Alice—Jack, too, has occasional moments of “coming to” where he can’t remember why he chose his tie, like he wasn’t there when it happened—but it’s Alice that is the busybody and is bound to get herself in trouble. She can’t really know who to trust, but she does anyway, and estranges herself from best friend, Bunny, for “acting like a child” and “sabotaging” her husband’s career and whatnot. She knows for sure, though, that she does not like Frank.
When you’re awake, the things you think/Come from the dreams you dream/Thought has wings/And lots of things/Are seldom what they seem.
There are a few tropes here, but they are done in a refreshing way. Ultimately, the question we are asked is, what will we pay or what will we do for happiness? And how do we know if happiness is real? Just a hint: It helps if your vision of happiness is shared equally by everyone around you. I won’t say more—this is a truly suspenseful movie and spoilers would ruin it. In the end, no one is who we think they are and there are lots of tricky and satisfying surprises. So try not to worry about who’s dating who, who stole whose man from whom, who refused to look at whom during the premiere, or whatever real/fake drama they’re going on about. It’s much more interesting to watch the fake/real movie and discover whether Alice escapes from the rabbit hole.
Some things that happen for the first time/Seem to be happening again/And so it seems that we have met before/And laughed before and loved before/But who knows where or when?
All lyrics from “Where or When” by Rodgers and Hart. “Don’t Worry Darling” is playing at local theaters.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.