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'Don't Worry Darling' is a showcase for Florence Pugh

Darling 2.jpg
Warner Brothers
In this undated image, Florence Pugh stars as Alice in actress Olivia Wilde's second directorial feature "Don't Worry Darling."

"Don't Worry Darling" hits cinema amid a lot of buzz but not all of it about the movie.

Actress and director Olivia Wilde is getting a lot of media attention about her personal life and the behind the scenes drama of her latest film. All of which is amplified by the fact that her current boyfriend, Harry Styles, is also one of the hottest pop singers around and co-stars in "Don't Worry Darling." (Here's a fairly level-headed rundown of social media hoopla, some Wilde brought on herself and some completely uncalled for.)

But there's an old adage that says any publicity is good publicity so maybe this will get people out of their home theaters and into a cinema to see Wilde's second feature as director.

Wilde’s "Booksmart" was an indie charmer about high school best friends on the eve of their graduation. With "Don’t Worry Darling," the director challenges herself with something darker and more complex but it’s all wrapped up in a sunny package of mid-century model home perfection.

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Columbia Pictures
Katherine Ross (center) and the perfect 70s housewives of "The Stepford Wives."

"Don’t Worry Darling" has shades of "The Stepford Wives," the 1975 horror/sci-fi film based on Ira Levin's book. Both films serve up communities that seem just a bit too idyllic. In the case of "Don't Worry Darling," it is an experimental utopian community out in the desert where the men head off to work every morning in a synchronous routine as their impeccably coiffed wives stay home cooking, cleaning and shopping.

But then cracks begin to appear. One woman has what seems to be a breakdown and claims that everything is a lie and that no one is asking any questions. This prompts Alice (Florence Pugh) to start asking questions and the answers are not comforting.

Warner Brothers
Director and actress Olivia Wilde with Florence Pugh on one of the gorgeous sets of "Don't Worry Darling."

"Don’t Worry Darling" has two strengths: Florence Pugh’s anchoring performance as Alice and Wilde’s picture perfect visual style. There’s wonderful creepiness in how mundane things like saran wrap or a sliding glass door can abruptly become suffocating symbols in Alice’s idyllic home.

The film falls apart, however, in the final act where a twist provokes an "ah-ha" gasp but then leaves you feeling cheated and disappointed. It also makes it hard to discuss where it goes wrong since that would involve spoilers. But I hate twists that in some ways invalidate the characters you have just spent and entire movie with. Personally, I think a less extravagant twist might have made a better narrative point.

Pugh almost sells it though. Her performance completely pulls us in and maintains an emotional core that keeps us connected to the story no matter where it turns. I do highly recommend seeking out "Lady Macbeth," one of her earliest films, for an even more finely etched and nuanced performance as a woman seemingly trapped. Styles, as Alice's husband, is pretty much an empty shell both in terms of the character and the performance. Pugh basically overshadows everyone, which is impressive, but also reveals additional flaws in the script that there is not much of interest outside of Alice.

Big screen or small this weekend?

"Don’t Worry Darling" confirms Wilde’s talent as a director but perhaps she needs to be more discerning about the scripts she takes on. It also reconfirms Pugh as an acting powerhouse.

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