On the face of it, Don’t Worry Darling should follow a similar trajectory to 95 percent of movies released every year. Ranking slightly below average in the eyes of reviewers on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, Olivia Wilde’s follow-up to 2019’s Booksmart should be destined to an underwhelming performance at the box office, followed by a purgatorial life in the farther-flung edges of your favourite streaming service. It has “everyone’s fourth choice that ends up getting watched because it’s the most inoffensive to all viewers” written all over it.
And yet the movie, which should be released on September 23rd with a whimper, looks set to hit cinemas with a bang. Rumours abound about disquiet among the cast, with lead actors Harry Styles, Chris Pine and Florence Pugh supposedly sharing little love for each other. It’s all stoked by social media, which has picked over the bones of every public appearance for signs of disharmony among the cast.
“Several different strands seem to come together in the Don’t Worry Darling memes, particularly around the Chris Pine-looking-dejected-at-the-press-tour one,” says Jess Maddox, assistant professor at the University of Alabama, and an expert in internet culture.
Maddox says one key strand is a thirst for an old-fashioned public celebrity feud among the general public that has turned a confluence of coincidences into a full-blown barney. “Platforms like TikTok and Twitter help amplify and accelerate speculation about these feuds, and these apps were definitely where the rumours were flying during the Venice Film Festival,” she explains. “When people don’t have all of the information, they often turn to social media to pick out breadcrumbs and discuss with likeminded folks.”
Then there’s the universality of the sentiment expressed by Chris Pine, whose vacant stare during a press conference was captured and shared on social media, now seen more than 19 million times. “The memes, especially the Chris Pine memes in particular, underscore a feeling we’ve all had – being at work and wishing you were anywhere else because of all the shenanigans happening around you,” says Maddox, who believes that the sentiment behind the stare has been supercharged by the trend of quiet quitting and setting boundaries at work.
“Were these facial expressions a sign that Chris Pine was quiet quitting Don’t Worry Darling?” Maddox asks. “Only he could say for sure, but the performed sentiment was one everyone has felt at their job at one point or another.”
There remains one key question unanswered: why what’s widely believed to be a middling movie has become a key driver of meme culture. It’s both unremarkable enough to be expected to fly under the radar, while not being enough of a cult classic to justify becoming a major meme-like movement in the same way that something like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room did years ago.
There are some suggestions: the involvement of Harry Styles as a serious lead actor for the first time, and the jealousy and bitchiness that is believed to come with that, is one potential. The fact the press tour has been a media juggernaut could also contribute to the way the gossip has cut through to the general public.
For Nathalie Van Raemdonck, doctoral researcher in memes at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, it’s all of the above – and more. “Add to that the very human emotions that you can see in very subtle ways on the celebs involved, that are interpreted by the audience purely based on the rumours flying around this film,” she says. “I think it also plays into the penchant for the internet to go sleuthing; people love to speculate whether this flinch or this look is connected to this rumour or confirms such and such suspicion.”
The desire for the internet to turn normal interactions into Agatha Christie-esque plot points has become more commonplace in recent years, says Van Raemdonck. “It happens very quickly that people make a huge thing out of a very small interaction, and because these celebs are under such a microscope of public scrutiny there's so many of these tiny interactions that you can read into,” she says.
Case in point: the claim that Styles spat on Pine while taking his seat at the premiere of the film in Venice, which has been denied by both parties and yet continues to gain currency on social media. In some ways, the near fact-free analysis of spitgate is an extension of a movement that picked up speed during the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, where tiny facial movements were psychoanalysed and given meaning in more detail than the Zapruder film’s frames were pored over in the aftermath of the assassination of JFK in 1963.
Another incident that was microanalysed to death in a similar way on social media were 2021 Eurovision winners Måneskin supposedly snorting coke during their press conference, which once again misrepresented real-life footage to support an argument. “It's pure misinformation logic,” says Van Raemdonck: “Take a piece of content out of context where it fits a certain narrative, share it with the masses who will uncritically accept it and add it to their puzzle of what is really going on. Voila, a meme is born!”
It’s not just the male stars that have been scrutinised by the social media masses. Florence Pugh’s demeanour and appearance have been subject to scurrilous gossip online. “Memes are based on a very reductionist, subjective, ironic rendition of events and pop culture,” says Anastasia Denisova, senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Westminster who studies the subject. “They turn real people into symbols – hence why so many memes related to Florence Pugh’s appearance, walking nonchalantly with a light drink at the Venice Film Festival.”
Pugh has been largely silent about the film, which some have suggested indicates an unease with what it has become (she was originally scheduled to star alongside Shia LaBoeuf, until he left the project and was replaced by Styles). Some of Pugh’s only comments about Don’t Worry Darling have been largely negative, focusing on her discomfort around the movie being known only for its sex scenes. She missed the pre-premiere press conference in Venice because of a delayed flight, and then made public comments that suggested unhappiness with the film.
The big question is whether controversy will convert into cash – and full cinema seats. With two weeks left before the official theatrical release, Don’t Worry Darling’s success could hinge on the gossipy analysis of its stars by social media users continuing for some time yet.