There are a hundred beautiful things in this film, and the craft trades have much to be proud of when they point to their credit here. Florence Pugh will add to her reputation as a fine actress with an interesting look and talent to spare. Harry Styles probably should not quit that very successful day job, but I did not find him to be the disaster that others have labeled him. Director Olivia Wilde has an eye for creative visuals, but she has not found a way to turn that vision into a tool that advances a coherent story. Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke have created a screenplay and story that resembles a number of other films. The reality of the characters is not reality. The question that comes up immediately, what the heck is going on? I’m going to tell you now, you will not be satisfied with the answer.
Maybe they thought that what they were telling was an allegory on women and men and their roles. It starts off as if it were an update to “The Stepford Wives”, since it seems the men have a secret and the women are all at home taking care of domestic issues. That however is as close to any obvious commentary as you are likely to get. There is one point where it sounds like it is going to be commenting on the men’s movement which has been widely discussed in the past few years. There is a hint of that in one of the speeches that the leader of the community is making, it almost comes off as a parody of those advocating that men return to their traditional roles. It turns out those words are gobbledygook and the point is even more obscure after that. When we finally get to the explanation of what is going on, it seems almost to go in the opposite direction, because the ineffectual men that make up the community are apparently not employed in something nefarious, unless work is somehow evil.
So what happens in the movie is aggressively stupid, and it gets more annoying as it goes along. The surface of “Victory” the town that all the characters occupy, is glossy and chic in a retro 50s style. Having grown up in the sixties in Southern California, I saw plenty of homes that looked like the ones in this film. I think there are probably stretches of Palm Springs that look like this. The sheen on the cars is so bright you could get blinded by it. Unlike in Stepford, the wives do not appear to be zombies with the same dull faces, except when the director wants them to be during repeated ballet lessons. If this is a message about conformity, why do the women have different styles, why are some of them pregnant, why does our main couple have a sexual appetite that is so insatiable they abandon dinner or have sex in the bosses bedroom? All of the characters take note of the differences as well. When Alice, the character played by Florence Pugh points out the similarity of the couples first meetings, there is a stamp of conformity, but instead of it being a problem in their behavior, it is a flaw in the mechanism that supposedly created this perfect community. If a video-game can have countless resolutions based on the programming and performance of the players, how is it that the system we discover can’t even create different backgrounds for characters? It makes no sense.
Speaking of making no sense, when the twist gets revealed, the first question that popped into my mind was “where did the plane come from?” It is not clear if this is an open system or a closed system. Sometimes, as with the sexual adventures of our main couple, it feels like there is an ability to influence the environment of the program. Other times, as when another wife has a breakdown, it feels like the system is in control. How much influence Alice has over what happens is not clear, ever. The power of the system is sometimes supposed to be implacable, but clearly it is not. When Chris Pine, as the cult like leader of the community, confronts Alice, he makes it sound like he and she are in some kind of battle, but that would undermine everything it looks like he is trying to accomplish. Also, the completion of his story is completely inconsistent with what the twist has revealed. It is difficult to talk about how stupid some of this is without crossing a spoiler line. When it is covered on the podcast, you will hear more if you tune in.
Let’s just say that this is a “Twilight Zone Episode”, expanded to two hours and given an indulgent budget. It would be better as a 22 minute black and white episode. It would still be middling in terms of story but it would be less annoying. Just because a Busby Berkeley dance sequence looks interesting, does not mean it belongs in the movie. If you are not tired of a world built around the premise of “The Matrix” and you enjoy songs from the 1950s, then you might find something here to enjoy. I felt it was a weak sauce retread of concepts that have been done better before. It’s dipped in a nice candy coating, but it’s full of empty calories and the more of it I consumed, the less I enjoyed it.