Olivia Wilde’s follow-up to her gleefully wayward directorial debut Booksmart has style to spare. From the honey-kissed sun-and-sand colour palette of sky blue and golden optimism to the costume work – a dream wardrobe of fitted 1950s cocktail dresses, accessorised with Brylcreemed boys in slick suits – the movie looks too good to be true. And that’s rather the point. If we’ve learned anything about 1950s picket fence perfection from American cinema, it’s that things are rarely quite as glossy and flawless as they initially seem.
Life in the utopian desert town of Victory, home to Alice (Florence Pugh) and her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), might be an endless circuit of martinis and potluck parties. But, as Alice begins to suspect, there is something a little off with this impeccably tailored community and its charismatic founder, Frank (Chris Pine). So far, so Stepford – it’s a serviceably pulpy thriller with a feminist subtext and, with its mysterious forbidden laboratory, a hint of sci-fi to come.
But the problem is that Wilde leans too heavily on surface and style, as a distraction from the fact that the story itself is riddled with inconsistencies and barely holds together. The same is true of Styles, who is too inexperienced as an actor to deliver the complexity that his role requires. He’s glassily superficial, giving a performance entirely untroubled by a hint of an interior life. In contrast, Pugh is phenomenal, throwing everything she has into her role and carrying large chunks of the film more or less single-handedly.