Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Sep 26, 2022 7:52 pm 
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Harry Styles, Florence Pugh, and Chris Pine in a pretty but thinly conceived 1950's dystopia

If you are of the opinion of Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, who thinks Harry Styles acts only "in the most elastic sense of that word," and that Harry "can carry a tune, halfway around the world, but give the bloke a line of dialogue and he’s utterly and helplessly adrift," then you'd better avoid Olivia Wilde's Don't Worry Darling, because it's got a lot of Harry Styles in it. If you go for Harry, whose first feature film role this is, as I did, you won't be disappointed on that score, whatever Mr. Lane says. He looks pretty good, and not like anybody else, and he didn't seem the least bit adrift to me. A good actor? Another question. We'd have to see him in a good movie. This is a pretty intense movie of the dystopian mind-boggler kind. The mind-boggling, unfortunately, dries up part way in when it becomes clear that none of this is going to make any sense. But the intensity holds up pretty much to the end. Where the film excels is in the interior décor, the clothes, the makeup, the drinks, and especially the bright shiny mid-century automobiles. But the screenplay makes no ultimate sense and the editing is no compensation for that basic problem.

Harry lives with Florence Pugh in a beautifully decorated circa 1950 house in the desert in the well-appointed company town of Victory, California. They're called Jack and Alice Chambers. Jack works under Frank (Chris Pine), the smug leader of the Victory Company, whose mysterious work, which the wives are never allowed to ask about, causes everything to shake like an earthquake - a couple of times. This shaking doesn't happen all through; that would be annoying, and besides, Alice does enough shaking on her own, so to speak. She is the second woman, after the disappeared Margaret (KiKi Layne), to get mighty suspicious about the Victory project, the morals of their leader, and, well, everything, including reality itself. Are their minds being manipulated? Is any of this really happening? And what are those microsecond flash-forwards, and those sudden black and white Busby Berkeley cartwheel dance images, and those big ink spots and giant corneas or pupils?

Don't Worry Darling wants to revel in that bright, shiny 1950's perfection that people born fifty years later like to imagine. It may not be far off in thinking most scientists', or executives', or whatever these guys are's wives weren't expected, circa 1950, to be doing much more than housecleaning and cooking and providing psychological support (which Alice fails at miserably once she starts getting paranoid). They might well have a drink for hubby at the door when he comes home from work. Women, the childless ones, at least, in such a posh setup might indeed spend a lot of time sipping bright colored cocktails and lounging around the pool - and take well-choreographed ballet class from the boss's wife Shelley (Gemma Chan). Breakfast might indeed include bacon; the eggs, fried sunny side up, would have white shells; and dinner might include a kneaded and marinated thick fatty steak such as we see in closeup twice. But the movie has other ideas too. It's not unusual for Jack upon returning from work to give Alice head on the dining room table, so energetically that she knocks off all the plates. That doesn't seem very likely. And what is definitely not a 1950's thing is that people did repeatedly say "awesome" to mean "fine."

The other men on the project, whose lives aren't looked into, though we meet some of their wives at the pool, are a bit more multi-racial than was usually the practice in those days. Margaret, incidentally, is black and beautiful, and nothing is made of that fact.

Behind Frank is a Dr. Collins (Timothy Simons), who may have set up the whole Victory Company but also comes by to hush up paranoia and prescribe a course of meds for Alice when she starts questioning things and getting off the trolley at the wrong stop. I'm surprised Dr. Collins wasn't driving the trolley.

Florence Pugh, a very good actress who was stunning in William Olroyd's 2016 Lady Macbeth, and excellent in Midsommar and Little Women,, works really hard to make the trial of Alice involving, with sympathetic if admittedly a little bit thin backup from Harry Styles (his character is meant to be helpless - and the whole scheme is from a simplistic Stepford Wives feminist perspective). Chris Pine is effectively sleazy. But the story hasn't been thought through. It's as if the filmmakers began with the palm trees and the desert, the shiny late forties and early fifties cars, the colorful cocktails and the mysterious project wives aren't told about - and then ran out of ideas. A couple of scenes from another movie thrown in three fourths of the way through, and an admission from Olivia Wilde herself as Alice's best friend Bunny, do not suffice as context and key. You can't just construct a dystopian story that makes no sense and call it a mystery; mysteries have explanations. Lane cites Pleasantville and The Truman Show as examples of this kind of thing done right. I never saw them: they didn't have Harry Styles in them!

Don't Worry Darling, 122 mins., debuted, with lots of gossip about feuds, at Venice Sept. 2, 2022, showed at Deauville and has had theatrical release since Sept. 19 in dozens of countries. It must be expected to do well and it won't matter that it's Metascore is 48%. Expect nominations for costume and production design. And to Harry Styles for best kisses and best cunnilingus, were such awards given.

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