Olivia Wilde’s New Movie Takes Aim at Jordan Peterson — And Destroys Itself - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Olivia Wilde’s New Movie Takes Aim at Jordan Peterson — And Destroys Itself
Olivia Wilde in promo video for “Don’t Worry Darling” (Vanity Fair/YouTube)

When a film intended as an exercise in cultural criticism fails, it is almost always because the director overinvests in the film’s moral teaching at the expense of the acting, cinematography, score, and so on. Remarkably, however, director Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling does not fail on this account.

Certainly, the first wave of reviewers who saw the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival all seemed to agree that despite a solid performance from the cast (excepting that of One Direction boy band sensation Harry Styles), the film lacked substance. In the words of a representative review in the Guardian, the film’s big reveal “feels absurdly negligible and contrived … the details are not thought through.”

But that this should be the early consensus is reasonable given the film’s plot. In the mid-century suburb of “Victory” in the California desert, all-too-perfect couples live in all-too-perfect domestic cheer. Every morning, the husbands go off to work at the “Victory Project” and their wives spend their day relaxing at the country club and making roasts at home. And every night, the husbands return to partake in lovemaking and cartoonishly yuppie dinner parties. But in scene after scene, the audience is reminded that something is terribly amiss. The food is all Victory-brand, the country club has the ambience of an upscale MKUltra lab, and everyone seems to defer in mingled tones of fear and reverence to Frank (Chris Pine), the founder and leader of the community, whose sonorous voice and dictums pervade the community’s television and radio programming.

Wilde stated that the ominous character of Frank was explicitly based on none other than Jordan Peterson, whom she dubbed a “pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community.”

The big reveal, which can hardly be described as such given Wilde’s generous flurry of clues and hints, is that, indeed, this idyllic desert community led by an enigmatic leader is too good to be true: It’s — a simulation! In the real world, the protagonist, Alice (Florence Pugh) is a harried surgeon, whom her husband, Jack (Styles), deceived and trapped with the aid of artificial reality technology provided by Frank, who is implied to be a sort of reactionary internet personality.

In providing preemptive explanation of the film, Wilde stated that the ominous character of Frank was explicitly based on none other than Jordan Peterson, whom she dubbed a “pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community.” But this is puzzling on two accounts. On the one hand, to Frank’s credit, despite ominously intoning such terms as “chaos” and “order,” he never avails himself of the pageantry of pseudo-Jungian song and dance. And, on the other, to Peterson’s credit, whereas Frank advocates an escape from reality into an idealized farce (complete with not only fake food but even fake children), Peterson’s whole claim to prominence has been as a steadfast advocate of facing reality squarely. The lesson of all his YouTube videos and lectures, reflected in his infamous catchphrase, “Clean up your room!,” is simply the following: Take responsibility for your actions because your actions have real consequences.

That Peterson would support the escapist project portrayed in the film, in which, for instance, the community’s hierarchy is unrelated to real achievements and the children are just simulated nonplayer characters, is contrary to everything he has ever said, especially with regard to the hapless young men Wilde describes as his prime audience.

If anything, Victory seems at first glance to be more like Mark Zuckerberg’s “Metaverse” project than anything else in the news. But even that comparison does not quite make sense given that the protagonist’s horror is less at Victory’s unreality and more at her husband’s deceptive swap of her ostensibly empowering, albeit difficult, life as a surgeon for one of mindless, conjugal bliss.

That is to say, the film criticizes neither a recognizable figure in the ongoing culture war nor even a straw man of one. Although Frank initially seems like a standard sort of reactionary nostalgic for midcentury mores at odds with the modern world, his solution to the problem of modernity is to simply shepherd his flock (plus the unwilling wives) into a Mad Men episode — and this makes him utterly different than the sort of characters Wilde marks out for scorn with reference to Peterson.

Fundamentally, such folks argue for traditional gender roles and communities because they think that these norms really ought to be the case. But Frank’s Victory project not only is not the case but by design eschews reality in favor of an elaborate theater piece. To wit, insofar as Frank and his collaborators care about the mores prevailing in Victory, they care only aesthetically.

People with such priorities do exist, however — although they are hardly the ones at which Wilde takes aim. Ironically, even, they arguably consist of (based on its marketing) the target audience of Don’t Worry Darling and similar films that gratuitously luxuriate in midcentury aesthetics — as well as Wilde herself.

Certainly, that Wilde uses the film as an outlet for aesthetic escapism is evident in scenes that show physical intimacy between Alice and Jack. Although Victory, per Wilde’s statements and the film’s own logic, is overtly patriarchal, the focus of each of the aforementioned scenes is solely Alice’s pleasure. And this was no mere fluke: In a promotional interview, Wilde proudly asserted, “Men don’t come in this film.… Only women here!”

But there are also other, more striking parallels between the film’s Victory project and that of its development. For example, a key plot point of the film involves a character who, after contesting the community’s purpose, failing to see things Frank’s way, and trying to leave, dramatically opts out, whereafter the community’s administration gaslights Alice about the real nature of her departure. Likewise, Shia LaBeouf (who was first slated to play Jack) initially insisted on his own method contra Wilde’s direction and similarly departed in dramatic fashion — whereafter Wilde informed the press that she, in fact, had wanted him to leave out of concern for Pugh — an account which LaBeouf rebutted by publicizing a video Wilde had privately sent him pleading the actor to give the film another shot. (READ MORE from Michael Shindler: Jordan Peele’s Nope: The Reactionary Blockbuster of the Summer)

Remarkably, in response Wilde doubled down, noting her protectiveness of Pugh, saying “my responsibility was towards her.” Yet according to further reports it was Wilde herself who was at odds with Pugh, apparently engaging in screaming matches on set to the extent that Pugh limited the amount of promotion she was willing to do for the film, including not attending its New York premiere.

But there’s more: The villainous cabal of gaslighting would-be patriarchs in the film are portrayed as using their relative power to cultivate the affections of their younger partners. Indeed, in a particularly dramatic scene towards the film’s end, Frank, despite being married, attempts to seduce Alice, citing his directorship of the community. On set, Wilde reportedly started a romantic relationship with LaBeouf’s replacement, Styles, who aside from being quite new to the acting business also happens to be a decade younger than Wilde. (Notably, Jason Sudeikis, with whom Wilde has two children, reportedly had the latter served with court documents regarding their custody during a presentation about the film at CinemaCon.)

Of course, this is not all to say that the film is best understood as an inadvertent multimillion-dollar exercise in Freudian projection. But perhaps in identifying its mark further from Peterson and closer to home, it is enough to conclude that Don’t Worry Darling’s first wave of critics were somewhat ungenerous in describing it as a mere swing and a miss.

Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in outlets including Church Life, the American Conservative, University Bookman, New English Review, and National Review Online. Follow him: @MichaelShindler.

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