“Alice in Blunderland”
Film Review for Northern Express Published October 10, 2022
Please read: this review contains major spoilers, none of which will ruin a film that has more plot problems than Olivia Wilde’s explanation of what really happened behind-the-scenes of filming it.
The highly stylish but ultimately disappointing thriller “Don’t Worry Darling” is in the end so simple, it could have been subtitled “Synchronized Fibbing.” The plot itself pits men against women in trying to control and understand them, but going to elaborate and incel-uous lengths in order to do it (all while the day-to-day realities of masochistic behavior are far uglier and more frightening than the imagined world from a screenplay by Katie Silberman with story by Carey and Shane Van Dyke).
With as much subtlety as waiting to drop a dollar in the tip jar when the clerk is looking, director and co-star Olivia Wilde paints the first half of the story with the best success, and lays out the vague ambivalent secrets of a desert utopia and the highly monitored world of The Victory Project (pssst! It’s a secret no one understands but the men).
“There’s beauty in control,” the gatekeepers remind us (and if that directness isn’t enough, you can also read into the film’s many sequences of vintage dance montages which play out every now and again like kaleidoscope reminders that, yes — everything is being choreographed before our very eyes).
Most on the nose of all is the lead character Alice, played as best she can by Florence Pugh, who goes down the rabbit hole of trying to understand The Victory Project and what it’s really about.
With strange breakfast clues and other-worldly experiences guiding her, Alice pieces together she’s not in control of this world long after the audience does. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique will remind you Alice’s world is spinning out of control by revolving around her in 360 degree steadicam with great relish and if that doesn’t help, the scary oompa-loompas in the red jumpsuits are also a sign that something is not perfect in this pristine and fashionable world.
Alice’s almost-absent husband Jack is no help (in either the lackluster performance from Harry ‘Watermelon Sugar High’ Styles or the plot itself), eventually betraying her in favor of The Project and giving her up to the creepy Mad Hatter in actor Chris Pine’s performance as Frank. Channeling a kind of young L. Ron Hubbard, Frank is the dashing leader of this cult and the puppeteer in charge. Of course there is sexual tension disguised as intellectual combat when the two face off and Alice confronts him about being trapped in this world, but that should be expected in a film that does more to reinforce gender stereotypes of the 1950s than it does to break them down.
Director Wilde had a fascinating debut in 2019 with “Booksmart” but just can’t keep the tension alive moving into Darling’s implausible third act where the fourth wall is broken and all virtual hell breaks loose. To be a sophisticated story, you also have to give the audience some respect and trust in their intelligence. With all the studio hype and machinery involved, Wilde may not have been able to keep the film from being dumbed down by focus groups or any of the nine producers she shares credit with. But in the end, drama belongs on the screen … and there just isn’t enough of it here to work with despite all the ingredients of celebrity, female-empowered sex, alternate realities and a post Me-Too audience consciousness.
Not all is lost! Fans of Palm Springs’ fabulous modern architecture will get to enjoy iconic gems in the film sets including the Tramway Gas Station Depot by Albert Frey and Robson Chambers, The Volcano House outside Barstow designed by Harold J. Bissner, Jr. and Richard Nuetra’s Desert Kauffman House made famous by photographer Slim Aarons, who once described his work as capturing “Attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” Indeed.