The Glib Dystopianism of “Don’t Worry Darling”

Ahead of its release, Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” has worked a multitude of observers into an enjoyable lather—not just online but also, more heatedly still, in the flesh. I am thinking of the fans who camped out at the Venice Film Festival before the movie’s red-carpet première, on September 5th. There they crouched beneath umbrellas, shielded against the pitiless noontide glare, for a ghost of a chance of a glimpse of Harry Styles, who acts, in the most elastic sense of that word, in the new film. As for the reputed feud between Wilde and Styles’s co-star, Florence Pugh, it is widely and maturely decreed to be insoluble. Tensions are lower in the Taiwan Strait.

And what of the poor movie, lost in the fury and the froth? Well, it’s a bright and whippy little fable, set largely in a small community of ideal homes. The period seems to be the nineteen-fifties, with dress codes and cocktails to match. The cars, not least an open-top silver Corvette, are a retro dream, and, every morning, they pull out of the driveways in unison and depart in proud procession, as if the street were a catwalk. The general color scheme is closely modelled on the Skittles that you will, I trust, be stuffing into your mouth as you watch the film. As for the weather, the sun shines without fail out of (a) a cloud-resistant sky and (b) the rear ends of the local guys. Or so they—and, all being well, their wives—would like to think.

Yet all is by no means well. Consider the household of Jack Chambers (Styles) and his wife, Alice (Pugh), who is fair of face and tremulous of mind. Jack works, as do his buddies, for something called the Victory Project, which involves “the development of progressive materials,” and which harbors a secret so profound that it took me as long as twenty minutes to guess what it was. After a hard day’s mystery labor, Jack likes to come home and have Victory sex with Alice on the dining-room table, thus dislodging the roast that she has toiled to prepare. Her other chores include scrubbing the bathtub, watching her friend Margaret (KiKi Layne) cut her own throat and fall off a roof, and taking a ballet class with her fellow-spouses, among them Bunny (Wilde), the pregnant Peg (Kate Berlant), and Shelley (Gemma Chan), a stinging queen bee.

King of the bees is Frank (Chris Pine), Shelley’s husband, and the mastermind of the Victory Project. Pine is the best thing in the film, his natural bonhomie nicely oiled and seasoned with creepiness. If only Wilde had placed more trust in his confiding smile; instead, she saddles him with slab after slab of overloaded speech. “We men, we ask a lot,” Frank tells the assembled couples. “We ask for strength, food at home, a house cleaned, and discretion above all else.” In other words, “Don’t Worry Darling” is about the development of regressive materials—about forcing women back into boxy lives and striving to convince them that they like it there. The problem is not that this is a cautionary tale but that the caution comes as no surprise. Again and again, Alice embarks with good grace upon a social event, or a domestic task, only to be smothered by its demands. Hence the plastic wrap that she suddenly winds around her head, or the glass wall that inches toward her and almost squishes her flat. It might as well have a sticker attached to it, saying “Warning: Patriarchal metaphor! Do not smudge!”

Get ready for two big reveals. One arrives in the final stretch of the plot, as Alice’s paranoid suspicions are excitingly confirmed. I would argue, however, that the confirmation has been under way from the start. We’ve all seen “The Truman Show” (1998), and a few of us saw “Serenity,” the funniest non-comedy of 2019, so we know the rule: the prettier the paradise, the more certain it is to be a façade, with cracks that open up on cue. That’s why the dystopian disclosures of Wilde’s film feel so easy, and why I would trade it in a heartbeat for Gary Ross’s “Pleasantville” (1998), the tale of two modern teen-agers whooshed back into a fifties TV show, where the bathrooms contain no toilets; the rapport with a utopian past was handled by Ross with an ambivalence and a delicate wit that are no use to “Don’t Worry Darling.” Oh, and the other reveal? Harry Styles can carry a tune, halfway around the world, but give the bloke a line of dialogue and he’s utterly and helplessly adrift. We love you, Harry!

The new movie from Andrew Dominik, “Blonde,” is full of other people’s films. We get clips—or what appear to be clips—from “All About Eve” (1950), “Niagara” (1953), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), and “Some Like It Hot” (1959). What links them is the presence of Marilyn Monroe, except that what Dominik does, with such fine needlework that you can’t spot the seams, is re-create these particular sequences with Ana de Armas, who plays the adult Monroe in “Blonde.” The breathy gasps, the eyes that widen in pleading or panic, the fleeting frowns of perplexity, the million-watt beam: pretty much everything in de Armas’s performance hits the Marilyn mark. She’s so real it’s unreal.

The film, hewn from Joyce Carol Oates’s log-size bio-novel of the same name, clings only loosely to the chronology of Marilyn’s existence. Thus, we kick off in Los Angeles, in 1933, with a fatherless and frightened little girl, Norma Jeane Baker (Lily Fisher), and her scalding mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who drives her, after dark, toward a wildfire that everyone else is eager to flee. “This is a city of sand and nothing will endure,” Gladys says. (Dominik’s script, as far as I can gauge, was doctored by the prophet Jeremiah.) Later, she tries to drown the child in a hot bath. From here, we leap almost twenty years to Norma Jeane, all grown up, and fast becoming Marilyn. Having read for a role, she sheds unfabricated tears. “I’m not thinking,” she says. “I’m remembering.”

Dominik’s knack for summoning sights of great beauty and variety, as demonstrated in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), is unimpaired. In “Blonde,” he tacks to and fro between monochrome—often echoing famous stills of Marilyn—and glaring pops of color. The frame of the image changes shape. The white-sheeted edge of a bed dissolves into the roar of a waterfall. One scene looks as if it were shot with a night-vision camera; all but naked and ghost-pale, Marilyn stumbles around like a stranded gazelle in a documentary about lions. Weirdest of all is the womb with a view. We peer out from inside her, as a doctor deploys his speculum and prepares to abort her child.

What purpose is served here? Is the fracturing of the story meant to suggest that Marilyn’s existence was all broken up to begin with, or could it be that “Blonde,” below its alluring surface, suffers from a moral monotone that needs disguising, lest our attention droop? The burden of the film is that Marilyn was, from first to last, a victim, inundated with prurience, misogyny, and venom. When Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) asks Marilyn how she got her start, she replies, “I guess I was discovered,” but we know better, or worse; we saw her being raped by a studio boss on the carpet of his office. DiMaggio, in turn, marries her and savagely beats her up. Ghastliest of all is the scene in which, sluggish with booze and pills, she is ferried into the hotel suite of John F. Kennedy. Busy on the phone, the leader of the free world commands that she fellate him while he watches rockets and spaceships on TV. Of course he does.

What spoils the Kennedy interlude is not how graphic but how unsubtle it is, desperate to detail the abuse of power and thrilling to its own scurrility. Power is abuse, according to “Blonde,” and pleasure is never unbesmirched. The closest that Marilyn comes to happiness is a languid threesome with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson. (“At least you two have fathers,” she tells them, mournfully.) Drinks on the beach with her third husband, Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), are interrupted by a miscarriage; photographers swarm from nowhere to catch her moment of woe, like the Marilyn zealots who hail her arrival at a première, their maws gaping wide, in slow motion, as if to devour her whole.

Bedazzling, overlong, and unjust, “Blonde” does a grave disservice to the woman whom it purports to honor. Lunging into sympathy for her plights, the movie blinds itself to the resolve with which she surmounted them and, especially, to the courage of her comic splendor. Younger viewers who watch it without having seen any Marilyn movies will have no clue how funny she could be. Indeed, I wonder if Dominik resents the very notion of comedy—the way in which it presumes to pluck happiness out of disorder and despair. That is why he shows Marilyn, on the set of “Some Like It Hot,” pausing to lash out mid-song and storming off, and why, as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” brings the audience around her to its feet, she whispers to herself, “For this, you killed your baby?” It is as though Dominik, by putting us through the ordeal of his film, wants us to feel guilty for ever having delighted in Marilyn Monroe, and to shame us into forsaking further bliss. We must not like it hot. To which the most polite response is: boo-boo-be-doop. ♦

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