There should be a word for a surprise that isn’t really a surprise. An unprise? A surplunk?
Whatever the word is, that’s happening in “Don’t Worry Darling,” Olivia Wilde’s follow-up to her terrific “Booksmart.” It’s a big pivot from that raucous comedy. “Darling” is a dystopian chiller in which the most intriguing flourish is that instead of falling in line with recent dystopian fare such as “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent,” it’s more like ‘70s failed utopias such as “The Stepford Wives” or the Thomas Tryon novels “The Other” and “Harvest Home.” Instead of a controlling government being the enemy, it’s friends and neighbors who seem to be out to get our protagonist.
She’s Alice and she’s played by Florence Pugh, the other big asset in “Darling.” It’s not a surprise to see Pugh playing a distraught person who gets trapped in an ominous, alien culture — perhaps you saw her do exactly the same thing in the superior, unsettling “Midsommar”? — but she’s such an inventive performer and her casting is so against-the-grain that she makes “Darling” watchable.
There’s something childlike and bratty about Pugh, qualities that earned her an Oscar nomination for “Little Women,” but she also projects canny intelligence that makes us root for her. Alice definitely needs someone on her side when she begins to suspect that her and husband Jack’s (Harry Styles) 1950s suburban community, where the main hobbies are competitive drinking and female disempowerment, is hiding some dark secrets.
Here’s the trouble: Wilde and the screenwriters miscalculate how to reveal those secrets, which are broadly hinted at from the opening moments. “Darling” is one of those movies — like “The Fugitive” or a dozen Alfred Hitchcock titles — that want us to flip-flop on whether the protagonist is delusional or correct in thinking something sinister is happening. The answer becomes clear so early in “Darling” that we spend about 90 minutes feeling like we’re way ahead of a movie that is proceeding much too slowly to a revelation we’ve already revealed to ourselves.
There seems to have been a lot more off-screen than on-screen drama in “Darling” but it occasionally springs to life. As the diabolically handsome head honcho of Alice’s planned community, Chris Pine’s theatrics stand out in the midst of the wan, hushed feel of the rest of the movie, and Wilde brings much-needed humor to the supporting role of Alice’s frenemy, whose intelligence is at odds with her willingness to submit to conformity. Arianne Phillips’ costumes and the midcentury locations — some of the movie was shot in Palm Springs, California — are lookers.
But even the achingly over-familiar music, which leans on songs such as “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “The Oogum Boogum Song,” seems to be sending the message, “You’ve been down this vaguely creepy road before. So get ready to be unprised.”
‘DON’T WORRY DARLING’2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for sexuality, violent content and language)
Running time: 2:02
How to watch: In theaters