Life is perfect in the town of Victory. The houses are spotless. The lawns are as green as emeralds, even though Victory sits in the middle of an arid desert. Everyone is gorgeous, dressed in the most magnificent 1950s clothes. There seems to be no crime, no police, and no worries. While their husbands go to work at some underground lab where they engineer “the development of progressive materials,” the wives get to take ballet classes and shop. They ride the trolley into town as the sun shines down with perfect magic hour light.

But then the women of Victory are made to chant weird stuff at ballet, like “there is beauty in control” and “there is grace in symmetry.” Then they come home from ballet and the sun is still shining with that same early evening glow as if no time has passed. The alcohol flows just a little too freely at dinner parties. Occasionally, the entire ground shakes violently and everyone needs to grab every glass in the immediate vicinity, lest they fall to the floor and get smashed to pieces. One of the wives begins to insist the men aren’t being honest with them. But how could that be? Everything is so beautiful and orderly.

Obviously, life is just a little too perfect in Victory. Something is amiss behind the facade of 1950s suburban tranquility; that much is painfully obvious from the earliest moments of Don’t Worry DarlingBut it takes the film more than half its runtime to even begin to reveal what’s beneath Victory’s serene surface, and by that point, any suspense or interest in the characters is long gone. (The last movie that so blatantly and clumsily gave off this kind of Something Is Very Wrong Here vibe was Last Christmas, which telegraphed its own wackadoo twist in its trailer.)

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The central figure in this mystery is Alice (Florence Pugh) who adores her hardworking husband Jack (Harry Styles), a rising star in the Victory Project. Unlike most of the other couples in their gorgeously manicured cul-de-sac, they are childless. That’s just the way they like it; that leaves them time to have sex everywhere and anywhere, including in the bedroom’s of Jack’s boss (Chris Pine), who founded the Victory Project and invites everyone in the company over for a pool party where he gives an inspirational speech about their community’s importance and the danger posed to it by the threat of chaos.

But then Alice inadvertently injects a little chaos into their lives when she disobeys Victory’s one rule —never wander off toward the company’s “headquarters” — to investigate a plane crash she witnesses one day while riding the trolley. Afterwards, she begins experiencing bizarre hallucinations; the walls of her house seem to literally be closing in on her, and she’s hounded by nightmares of women dancing in perfect symmetry. (But wait! I thought there was supposed to be grace in symmetry!) Soon, Alice’s disturbed neighbor Margaret (KiKi Layne), who persists in calling Victory a sham even as the rest of the women in town ostracize her for it, doesn’t seem so crazy after all.

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Pugh is perfectly fine as Alice, although she was even more effective in the similarly themed (and far more disturbing) thriller Midsommar. She does have a little chemistry with Styles, but he is otherwise totally miscast for (and looks a little lost in) his role. The only person who really brings something memorable to the film is Pine, who is so goddamn handsome and so believable at playing a man with such a strong cult of personality that he could convince people to help him build a private community in the middle of nowhere. When he and Pugh get one big scene together near Don’t Worry Darling’s climax, the film suddenly and briefly comes alive.

Of course, some of these names were not the original actors cast in the film. No doubt you’ve heard that Shia LaBeouf was the first star chosen by director Olivia Wilde for Styles’ part, and that Wilde and Styles eventually became a couple after working together. Rumors of on-set strife continued throughout production, and even into the movie’s run on the summer film festival circuit.

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None of that has any bearing on my feelings about this project. Troubled productions sometimes produce masterpieces, and harmonious sets sometimes produce garbage. A film is not how it’s made; it’s how it plays. And Don’t Worry Darling plays very poorly. It’s the sort of sustained puzzle of a movie that is very hard to pull off especially for over two hours, and here, Wilde was simply not up to the task.

Her last effort, Booksmart, was so funny and insightful, and this follow-up was even co-written by its screenwriter, Katie Silberman. But Don’t Worry Darling is a textbook case of a sophomore slump; an ambitious vision overloaded with big themes and lofty messages that have been buried in a thriller with no thrills, all of which takes place in a world whose rules have not been thought through beyond how they can be used to help the filmmakers say something meaningful about women’s evolving role in society.

I found I mostly agreed with Wilde’s points and was completely bored by the way she made them. Don’t Worry Darling isn’t even the sort of mystery you can think and talk about after it’s over, because none of it holds up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. Like Victory itself, there isn‘t much there there once you get past its glamorous exterior.

RATING: 3/10

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