We’re all familiar with Dr. Manhattan and how he exists everywhere at once now, right? Like, it’s not just comic book nerds; the meme(s) mean(s) that everyone knows the whole deal, right? So if I were to describe to you those three panels, but in each one, I’m saying:
- It’s 1998 and my mom has rented The Stepford Wives for us to watch while my dad is out of town.
- It’s 2004 and I’m sitting in a theater watching the modern version of The Stepford Wives.
- It’s 2022 and I’m sitting in a theater watching the modern version of The Stepford Wives.
…you get the effect I’m trying to achieve, right?
Don’t Worry Darling is the sophomore picture of one Olivia Wilde, who delivered a stunner with her freshman flick Booksmart. I first saw the trailer before Men when I caught that in a May screening, and was captivated by it, and I’m glad to say that it delivered for me, even if it isn’t for others. Florence Pugh stars as Alice Chambers, who plays house all day in her gorgeous Midcentury modern bungalow located in a perfect little cul-de-sac. Each morning, she sees off her husband Jack (Harry Styles) as he and all of the other husbands in the neighborhood drive off to work in their pristine 1950s cars (I’m not a car guy and I guess there’s not a lot of overlap between car guys and this movie, since there would normally be a list of cars in the IMDb trivia by now, so your guess is as good as mine; I’m certain at least one was a Chevy and that’s all I’ve got). They’re all residents of a company town called Victory, and Jack and all of the men work for Frank (Chris Pine) on something called “progressive materials,” which is of course classified. The gals spend their days with housekeeping and idle leisure — shopping, spending long days creating perfect meals, drinking poolside, scrubbing bathtubs, keeping fit with ballet lessons from Frank’s wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), and making beds. Of course, it’s not the 1950s we know, and we’re tipped off by this from the film’s first moments, where we see the Chamberses hosting a party with an interracial couple (with the Loving V. decision still a decade away) and living in a desegregated neighborhood, as evidenced by the presence of Margaret (KiKi Layne) and Ted Watkins.
All is not peachy keen for everyone in Pleasantville, however, as Margaret is going through a difficult time. Some time before the start of the narrative, she believed that she saw a biplane crash in the desert hills that surround the town and went into the Headquarters’ restricted zone with her son to find it; only she came back alive, and Alice’s best friend Bunny (Olivia Wilde) in particular is judgmental of the whole situation. For Alice, however, things are perfect: she has her handsome husband, her perfect life, and her gorgeous friends, and he’s getting a promotion! That is, until she sees a plane crash over the ridge as well and, going to inspect it, comes upon a reflective, man-made structure that gives her a surreal vision. She awakens back at home, but it’s as if the veil of her reality has been pierced, and as more traumatic events take place in Victory, she begins having nightmares and hallucinations that affect her sense of reality. And, as you would expect, nothing is as it seems.
Almost five years ago, a new employee joined my company, and in his icebreaker, they were asked, If you could live in a fictional tv or movie world, what would it be? Their response? “Mad Men,” they said. “I really like the late 50’s and 60’s. I know the time is not fictional but the show is. I’m not a big fiction fan. That time period had the best designed cars, furniture, homes, fashion, etc.” I’ll leave aside that this person voluntarily said that they were not a “fan” of “fiction” (although woof), because I had my own collegiate phase in which I refused to read non-fiction and said of all non-fiction works, saying “They’re all the same, it’s all about white people having a spiritual experience at the expense of colonized peoples or some person thinking that they can’t climb a mountain only to realize that they can,” and then I would perform what is colloquially known as a “jerk off motion.” I get that I can be closed-minded too. But I was also completely agog that my new colleague sat down and watched Mad Men and the lesson that he absorbed from it was “Dan Draper is cool,” rather than “nostalgia without inspection is poisonous and insidious.” When I mentioned this to a friend, I was surprised to learn (as a person who ended up watching the show rather late into its run) that there was actually a fairly large misaimed fandom for the AMC show during its heyday. The lesson I took from that day is that some people are very easily won over by candy-coated Midcentury modernism, so much so that even when the text is blindingly obvious in its intent to convey the message that the past is always worse than you think. The show’s timeline overlapped with the lynching of Emmit Till and the assassination of MLK and intentionally so (it would often skip a year or two between seasons, so when a contemporary event fell within the scope of the narrative, you knew it did so with purpose), and that’s just the big picture stuff, not even getting into the social normalization of casual littering, child abuse, and just about every bigotry you can name. And yet some people only noticed the Noguchi coffee tables and the Coupes DeVille.
Supposedly, Pine’s character, the enigmatic Frank, is based on self-titled “public intellectual” Jordan Peterson (not the one who’s a MEN.com exclusive), the Canadian social media personality who subsists on a diet of nothing but meat and who exercises by stre-e-e-etching to find something new each day in the media to take personal offense to, and then makes his indignation about black mermaids and She-Hulks the subject of his personality while calling other people “snowflakes.” If he is a stranger to you, bless you, summer child, and look no further into the existence of this man. If he sounds slightly familiar, it may be because he went on a recent multi-site frothing-at-the-mouth/crying tour because Sports Illustrated put a woman on the cover that didn’t make his dick hard. Some of that is lost when casting sends over Chris “Kirk but a Chad” Pine to stand in for a man who looks like a ghoul on a good day. I can see how that intent may have been clearer in the script, given that Frank has created an environment in which the strict 1950s gender roles of breadwinner/homemaker is enforced in more ways than simply socially, and it’s not just that he owns the whole company town like Hank Scorpio, but his endless pablum of radio-delivered doublespeak sounds exactly like the purposely dense nonsense talk of Peterson. Where it fails is in the fact that Pine, with his lantern jawline, piercing eyes, and taut abdominal muscles, doesn’t look like Jordan Peterson; he looks like a movie star. And while those who have seen the movie and know its twist could argue that Frank might not really look as good as he appears to us, given that another character is seen as their un-idealized self at a different point, but I’d also argue that the difference between the “normal” and the “idealized” versions of that character are minimal (Janey Briggs looked more different in her before-and-afters).
I made two notes immediately after watching this movie. The first, “People want to live in Mad Men and it sucks,” I think we’ve already discussed in detail above. The other, “Trying to recapture ‘the glories of the past’ and all of the purported good thereof also sucks.” L.P. Hartley famously wrote as the opening line to The Go-Between that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It is perhaps the greatest malady of modern man that he is still so susceptible not only to lies about an imagined “better” (or worse, “great”) past, so trapped within the limited horizon of their self-awareness that they can’t seem to understand that there is no going back to “innocence” because “innocence” isn’t a time in the past, it’s a time in your past, that continuum of moments that all took place prior to the day you realized that something you didn’t realize you had was gone, and maybe had been gone for a long time.
Within Don’t Worry Darling, the Victory Project is the modern incel’s fantasy about what they’ve been tricked into believing about the past. Narratively, it’s so similar to the Stepford chronicles from which it cribs heavily that it wouldn’t be something novel enough to comment upon if it weren’t for just how beautiful and expressive everything is. Cinematically, the movie is breathtaking, with shots of an impassable desert, an impossible community, and all of the furniture, architecture, and style that harkens back to a time that never really existed. There are a few pacing problems on occasion, but special style points must go to the crew for all the work of blurring the lines about how much of what we see we can actually trust. As Alice starts to experience hallucinations and surreal nightmares, the imagery is effective and fascinating. I can only hope that the 5-star “Harry is hawt” reviews from children can do enough to balance out the 1-star “hur hur feminists will like watching this movie with their cats” reviews from CHUDs to ensure that people decide to, uh, do their own research and make up their own minds.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond