'Don't Worry Darling': Controversies don't stop box office success

Don't Worry Darling tops the boxoffice, despite controversy and 'scandals'
Don't Worry Darling tops the boxoffice, despite controversy and 'scandals'   -   Copyright  New Line CInema
By David Mouriquand

Against all odds and bad publicity, Don't Worry Darling is currently topping the charts in the US and UK. Does this mean that controversies and tabloid chat can't break a film?

The latest twist in the Don’t Worry Darling saga – which we have covered at length here at Euronews Culture - is that Olivia Wilde’s suburban thriller is surprisingly topping the box office. 

Its success proves that despite all the drama surrounding the film and its chaotic press tour, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

There were fears that the film, starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, would be overshadowed by the off-set drama: rumours of squabbles between Pugh and Wilde, Venice Film Festival’s #Spitgate, and some deeply inane promotional comments made by Styles, who described his favourite thing about the movie as “that it feels like a movie.”

Harry Styles' co-star Chris Pine dying inside at this year's Venice Film Festival, where Don't Worry Darling premiered

But against all odds, Don’t Worry Darling has opened strongly in the US and the UK, potentially because - and not in spite of - the messy antics and less-than-stellar publicity surrounding Wilde’s sophomore effort in the director’s chair.

The film, which arrived on screens last week with more baggage than most films in recent memory, has become the UK and Ireland’s widest-ever opener by a female director in terms of screening locations, amassing £2.7 million and surpassing her (far superior) 2019 debut Booksmart, which grossed £1.5 million at the box office.

In the US, Don’t Worry Darling opened at No.1 at the box office, debuting with $19.2 million in ticket sales, more than the studio had forecast. It beat Gina Prince-Bythewood’s African epic The Woman King to the top spot ($11.1 million), as well as the re-release of James Cameron’s Avatar, 13 years after its initial run in theatres ($10 million).

Jeff Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros., stated that “the background noise had a neutral impact.” The studio, he said, was “pleased with these results given our modest production budget.”

The production cost of Don’t Worry Darling was $35 million. 

You’d think for that amount of money, they could have splashed out on a comma after the ‘worry’.

New Line Cinema
Florence Pugh in Don't Worry DarlingNew Line Cinema

Can controversies break a film?

They can, but by in large, the drumming up of publicity – no matter how messy – seems to serve as a galvanizing force for audience enthusiasm. The more a film is embroiled in controversy, the more punters' appetites seems to grow.

Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, but when you have a commercially viable cast, no amount of critical panning or online scandals can deter an audience if they’ve already made their mind up on whether they want to see a film. Even if they don’t want to, the scandals become even more irrelevant.

Similar instances to Don't Worry Darling are endless.

James Cameron’s much-publicised, tyrant-like on-set demands during the filming of Titanic (which resulted in broken bones, Kate Winslet getting hypothermia and the set hit with PCP poisoning) didn’t stop the film from becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time before Avatar came along; Mr & Mrs Smith was overshadowed by the tabloid reports that Brad Pitt was cheating on Jennifer Aniston with his co-star Angelina Jolie, but did remarkably well at the box office; and the fact that Daniel Craig injured himself repeatedly and is blond - with many dubbing him “James Bland” at the time - didn’t stop Casino Royale from being one of the most commercially successful and critically lauded 007 instalments.

More recently, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong film First Man didn’t tank because of conservative pundits bellyaching about the lack of American flags; there was no flop for the Buzz Lightyear origin story Lightyear because of a same-sex kiss; the on-set beef between Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson never dented the popularity of the Fast and Furious movies; and even Sony’s godawful Morbius has found a new breath of life on VoD and inspired countless memes with the catchphrase “It’s Morbin’ time!”

Time will tell whether the multiple controversies surrounding Ezra Miller – including kidnapping and assault – will tank The Flash, but don’t bet against its chances of it being a commercial hit.

No matter how hectic the self-inflicted drama, how troubling the scandal or fraut the production, it’s often the case that films are helped, not hindered, by overshadowing controversies - to the point that one suspects PR teams probably welcome the drama.

AP Photo
Olivia Wilde (left), Chris Pine (center), Florence Pugh (right) at the premiere of Don't Worry Darling in VeniceAP Photo

But what about the film itself - is Don’t Worry Darling any good?

No. It's not. 

It’s been panned by critics and rightly so, but it seems that Harry Styles fans and those curious to find out what the fuss is about have turned out to watch what is a mighty missed opportunity of a film.

The story follows Alice (Pugh) and her husband (Styles) and their life in the utopian town of Victory, run by its charismatic and venerated founder Frank (Chris Pine). As the daily routine and parties roll around like clockwork, Alice begins to suspect that there’s something sinister lurking behind the smiles, the manicured setting and the seemingly impeccable sheen of the community.

It’s sci-fi tinged blend of 1967's TV series The Prisoner and Stepford Wives, and its boasted feminist credentials are savagely disappointing. The whole show is a collection of half-baked ideas that are poorly directed and edited in such a haphazard way that the rushy-draggy pacing becomes one of its most frustrating flaws. The worst offender is the story / script by Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, which brings little new to the table and doesn’t hold up to any immediate scrutiny. It never convincingly leans into its pulpy, Black Mirror-esque potential. 

As for the previously mentioned “feminist” undertones, it elects to squander the opportunity to comment on incel culture and the Jordan Petersons of this world (Wilde said that Pine’s guru character was based on the “pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community”) by instead favouring meaningless lines of dialogue and tagged-on plot beats which are supposed to appear empowering but end up feeling as hollow as the film itself. If it’s interesting gender commentary you’re looking for, it’s been done better in countless other genre films, including this year’s Men and 2020’s The Invisible Man.

When it comes to the much-publicised sexy content that Olivia Wilde was so keen on bringing up in interviews – and which led Pugh to forego promotional duties because she didn’t want the conversation around the film to resume itself to a scene in which one of the most famous men on earth goes down on her character – it’s very tame. It reveals itself to be a transparently cynical strategy to promote a movie through the drumming up of a raunchy aura that never materializes.

While Don’t Worry Darling far from the worst thing you’ll see this year (Blackbird still takes that prize), there’s not much to rake out of the wreckage apart from Florence Pugh’s performance and the overall look of the film. The 50s-style costumes and sets are terrific - but when your attention leaves behind the thriller twists, and turns more towards sartorial envy and how damn good those kitchen appliances look, something has gone seriously wrong somewhere.

At the end of the day, it’s a classic case of style over substance which makes Styles aforementioned bland description of the film surprisingly apt: it’s a movie.

He was really onto something.

Choose instead to rewatch The Prisoner or discover a fantastic standalone episode of The X Files titled 'Arcadia' (Season 6, Episode 15), which is essentially Don’t Worry Darling with a far more convincing resolution - which is saying a lot, considering the hit show never shackled itself to neat endings and found strength in leaving certain plot resolutions open to creepily toy with the audience’s imaginations.

Don't Worry Darling is currently in cinemas.