Exactly the sort of glamorously vapid fakery the New Hollywood had to kill, this bloated musical adventure is a misfire on nearly every level, notwithstanding the lush production values that inflated the picture’s budget to a reported $25 million, an astronomical sum for the late ’60s/early ’70s. Inspired by the legendary World War I spy Mata Hari, this original story by Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty (Edwards also produced and directed) is an awkward hodgepodge of aerial combat, international intrigue, musical numbers, romance, and slapstick.
In World War I-era France, British singer Lili Smith (Julie Andrews) is a popular entertainer but also, secretly, a spy for the German army. Her handler (Jeremy Kemp) assigns Lili to seduce an Allied pilot (Rock Hudson) in order to pry military secrets from him. The plot weaves an uninteresting web of deceit, jealousy, and misunderstandings as Lili falls in love with her target, endangering them both.
Listing everything that’s wrong with Darling Lili would consume most of the Internet’s available bandwith, so let’s stick to the major issues: Lili’s characterization doesn’t make any sense (she’s a virginal saint at one moment, a brazen saboteur the next); it’s unclear whether viewers are expected to root for the Germans or the Allies; the interminable musical numbers and the exciting low-altitude dogfights feel like pieces of two different movies stitched together; the sudden tonal shifts from broad comedy to intimate drama don’t work; composer Henry Mancini’s music is unbearably treacly; and the two leading actors are atrocious.
Andrews presumably took the role in an effort to shake off her goody-two-shoes image, but she’s way too cheerful, polite, and wide-eyed to play a woman of intrigue. The sequence in which she does a tame striptease (inspired by a sexy performer whom she believes has caught her lover’s eye) is actually uncomfortable to watch because Andrews seems desperate to prove she can be naughty. Hudson, a likeable personality but never any great shakes as an actor, looks tired throughout the picture, as if they idea of playing one more light-comedy romantic scene makes him sick, so his lack of enthusiasm drains energy from the whole film.
However, most of the blame for this mess falls to Edwards, who seems intoxicated not only by all of the big-budget toys at his disposal but also by his leading lady—he married Andrews after shooting this picture, and they were together until he died in 2010. It’s pleasant to report that making Darling Lili was a rewarding experience, because actually watching the movie is not.
Darling Lili: LAME