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During the infamous Venice Film Festival press conference for don’t worry baby, pop dream boat and aspiring actor Harry Styles described his new star vehicle this way: “My favorite thing about the movie is, it feels like a… like a movie. It feels like a real, you know, go-to -the-theatre movie film.” A clip of his co-star Chris Pine seemingly losing his grip on reality as Styles said these words went viral, and — not for the first or last time in don’t worry baby‘s cursed press tour — Styles was the butt of the internet jokes.
Now that I’ve seen the movie, I know what Harry said. don’t worry babydirected by Olivia Wilde and also starring Florence Pugh, For real is a go-to-the-theatre movie movie. It is full of hot famous people wearing immaculate clothes. It looks sleek and sounds loud and enveloping. It has a bit of sex, a bit of mystery and a bit of action. It takes a big swing for a big, stupid idea, aiming to throw it all in the cheap seats. It’s not very smart and not entirely successful, but it’s the kind of bold, brassy, high-concept studio thriller we don’t get that often these days. (at least me think that’s what Harry was trying to say.)
In that context, the cyclone of gossip that preceded its release feels like part of the experience, or at least in line with it: a decadent, gleaming tableau of the millennium-turning celebrity culture. But luckily we can leave all mention of the scandal there. If there were any issues on set or disagreements among the cast, you don’t see it in the final product, which is smooth and remarkably well made – if not well thought out.
don’t worry baby is set in a 1950s corporate idyll. Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles) are a young couple in love who live in a mid-century modular paradise in the shade of tall palm trees. All the women here are housewives and all the men work in a mysterious facility in the desert, the Victory Project. What they do there is a closely guarded secret; the leader of the project is a charismatic devil named Frank (Pine), a cult figure who speaks only in bland, non-specific aphorisms about their common cause and utopian lifestyle.
Alice glides through this existence in a contented haze, enjoying Jack’s attentions at home, sipping a drink with her sardonic neighbor Bunny (Wilde) and practicing ballet with the other women under the cool gaze of Frank’s wife Shelley (Gemma Chan). But she sees cracks in the facade of this perfect world – a deranged woman in the house next door, an empty eggshell, a plane falling from the sky. She is attracted to these imperfections, but no one else seems to notice, her own attention slips and her reality begins to break.
There doesn’t seem to be much that connects this glamorous, hyper-realistic, rather sour psychological thriller with Wilde’s previous film, the sympathetic and conscientious teen comedy smart book. But behind both films, you can sense a director with strong, propulsive, audience-friendly instincts, who likes to go big and doesn’t have much time for grayscale. That’s no dis – it’s an all-too-rare pleasure to see a female director at work in this populist register, with significant studio resources behind her. (Gina Prince-Bythewood is muscular) The woman kingalso in theaters, hopefully it makes a trend.)
But Wilde’s willingness to go for the jugular vein served her better in a bawdy comedy than a movie that operates in an ambiguous, mystery-box mode. From the outset, she charges the film with extremely pointed visual metaphors. Some of these are original and striking: Pugh is held back by the glass windows of her perfect modernist home, or suffocated herself in plastic wrap. Some are cliché and painful on the nose: those empty eggs, a repetition Groundhog Day motif of pouring coffee and sizzling bacon, a Marilyn Monroe lookalike jumping into a giant cocktail glass. None of them are subtle. Wilde begins to deconstruct Victory’s world before finishing building it, and she does it armed with a Hitchcock box glued to a sledgehammer.
There’s no room for surprise or nuance as Alice gets closer to the truth about what’s happening to the women of Victory. Nothing is as it seems, and yet, to an even mildly film literate audience, everything is exactly as it appears to be. Even if you don’t guess the exact nature of the Shyamalan-esque twist in the story, you’ll know its outline and feel where it’s headed long before it arrives.
Perhaps there is genuine honesty in this – even justified anger. If you’re wondering what holds women to an unsatisfying fantasy of calm domesticity, what power limits their personality, it’s really no mystery at all. Perhaps it would be its own form of gaslighting to pretend otherwise for the sake of a satisfying twist. But if that’s the case, then a high-concept mystery thriller was definitely the wrong medium for the message.
So it proves. The film’s final act dissolves into a mess of illogical, indecisive and half-formed ideas. The filmmakers pull aside the curtain and point the finger, but don’t quite manage – or don’t feel like it – to explain themselves and foresee the consequences. (Wilde hired her smart book collaborator Katie Silberman to rework an original script by Carey and Shane Van Dyke; don’t worry baby has all the hallmarks of being overdeveloped.)
Curiously, the actor stranded by the film’s collapse isn’t Pugh, it’s Styles. He is not the disaster that some gleefully predicted. He has no edge to speak of, but he looks very rambunctious, and his boyish artlessness fits the themes of the film better than you might think; in Victory it’s not just the women who have been manipulated. But as the plot unfolds, he sadly deflates; under the Harry Styles of all this there is nothing left.
It would be impossible to do that to Pugh. Alice might as well be a number on the page, but on screen, Pugh’s rooted physicality and radiant, mischievous, stubborn attitude to life are real. She won’t be denied, and she powers don’t worry baby crossing the finish line by sheer willpower.
Pugh’s performance is enough of a recommendation to see this glossy, smoothly-finished film-like-a-movie feel. The production design, costumes and cinematography are delightful and handled with precision. Musically, it’s even richer and a bit edgier, with crooning doo-wop and civilized jazz against John Powell’s unsettling, nervous score. In the space between these luxurious images and dissonant sounds you feel a door opening to a more thorny, more provocative film. But Wilde, who wanted to do everything he could to make sure everyone got it, made it happen.
don’t worry baby opens in theaters on September 23.