In a new suspenseful and colorful feature of the budding director Olivia Wilde, viewers and critics seem only to notice the questionable efforts of pop star Harry Styles and the drama behind the scenes that resulted in many on-screen changes, including the swapping of roles between Olivia Wilde and Florence Pugh, and the replacement of Shia LeBeouf with Harry Styles due to conflicts with Wilde. But the rest of the star-studded cast, along with the psychologically thrilling plot and structure, are more than worth the effort and time it takes to sit through this two-hour movie.
We follow Alice (Pugh) as she happily embraces the responsibilities of a doting housewife. She and her husband, Jack (Styles), are one of the young, sexy, and alluring couples in the supposedly perfect 1950s town. The time period, as we now see, plays a major role here, as all the wives take on the traditional responsibilities of cleaning and cooking while their husbands drive off to work; in a shot, the husbands are seen driving off one by one. This scene’s disorienting uniformity causes the audience to feel its orchestration a facade — designed by a deceitful artist. We feel this but are too distracted as classic, upbeat ‘50s music plays while Alice vacuums the house with a bedazzling smile. Later on, we are taken aback in a scene where Styles, whose amateur performance made it difficult to believe his embodiment of the role, engages in an explicit sex scene where he pleasures his on-screen wife.
Although this scene might appear as pandering to attract Styles’s fans, it was one of the vital ways director Wilde chose to explore female pleasure. In an interview with “Variety,” Wilde argued that it is nowadays prominently explored “in queer films” and that in other heterosexual films, “the focus [is] on men as the recipients of pleasure.” This inclusion also allows the audience to understand the carefree, tantalizing relationship of Alice and Jack, establishing a connection between them that will drive the story and extend the heartbreaks beyond the final image.
The ordered society’s seemingly perfect nature soon begins to crack and distort. Alice, along with the audience, starts to question the authenticity of her surroundings as she gradually becomes enlocked in the psychological state of the socially exiled housewife, Margaret, played by Kiki Layne. We see each character reach their breaking point, revealing the truth behind their superficial demeanor and the extent of their claimed loyalties. For example, Bunny, played by Wilde, exposes her true colors when she places her orchestrated life over her friend Alice’s efforts to find sanity. Moreover, Shelley, played by Gemma Chan, shows vigorous devotion to her husband, Frank, played by Chris Pines, in her few lines of dialogue, only to turn around and betray him when it mattered — a creative choice that comes across as a desperate attempt to establish empowerment.
It is during this enticing phase that Pugh’s acting prowess is exposed, perhaps intentionally put in the spotlight to compensate for off-screen complications which, for example, made Styles’s role more secondary (maybe because it required more acting prowess than he had).
The general theme of the movie align with feminism, or at least female sovereignty. The submissive, glamorous demeanor of the housewife flips on its head, and their once sheltered lives are taken into their control. Although this message translates clearly from the screen, the means come across as sometimes underdeveloped, especially towards the end. When the climax slowly arises, the crucial details needed for the audience to feel the appropriate effect of the conflict are force-fed to us. They are stated as one-liners in the dialogue and shown as random scenes with no build-up. As we become frustrated and feel the constraints of a limited runtime, we realize that a lot of time was wasted on raunchy, witty jokes and scenes of useless fun at the beginning. As the movie steers towards the end, it tries to spread across different genres — reaching even action with the noisy car scene and whimsical with its puzzling dance number — making it difficult to understand the specific emotional response it demands from its viewers.
To surmise, the overwhelming critical opinions directed towards Harry Styles, although not entirely wrong, distract from the fact that the movie embodies a unified feminist message, shown in the overflow of brainwashed smiling women, synchronized ballets, and deep twists. Moreover, despite its flaws, considering all that this movie went through just to be made, I think it deserves at least one sit-down.