Film reviews and more since 2009

Promising Young Woman (2020) review

Dir. Emerald Fennell

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

Promising Young Woman opens with a woman appearing intoxicated while sitting at a large corner-table at a bar. She catches the eye of three Average Joes — one of them played by Adam Brody — in “deep” conversation about the ridiculous notion that a woman at their company would file a harassment claim to HR. Brody, in a momentary burst of confidence, approaches the drunken woman and offers her a safe ride home. Of course his apartment is on the way, so he must invite her in for a drink. Her mumblings are mistaken for consent. But he’s a nice guy, so she need not worry. The two kiss, but just as he’s insisting sex, the woman, named Cassie (Carey Mulligan), turns the tables. Cut to her confidently exiting from the situation with bloody arms and a gigantic fast-food burger she eats in modest glee.

It’s a firecracker opening for a movie that has a justifiable anger embedded in its story and carries it throughout. Cassie is a thirtysomething woman, still living at home with her parents and working as a barista. Once a promising medical student, her professional and personal life have been in shambles since a traumatic event happened to her friend, Nina — the details of which are revealed slowly overtime. Cassie has a nightly hobby of venturing out to local clubs in the evening, luring in men with unsavory plans, and turning them into victims of their impulses. Her routine is somewhat thrown off when she rekindles with an old classmate named Ryan (comedian Bo Burnham), who makes her believe there are decent, well-meaning men in what continues to appear like a cruel, misogynistic world.

Still, don’t mistake this as a romance. It’s still a tried and true revenge movie, more Ms. 45 than Shithouse.

Promising Young Woman is another entry in the cinematic world of candy-colored chaos ala Birds of Prey and The Neon Demon in which bright, neon hues serve as a keen visual juxtaposition for a narrative that thrives on darkness. The film marks the directorial debut of Emerald Fennell, famous for her work on The Crown, who also served as the showrunner for the popular Killing Eve. The supremely talented Carey Mulligan, who finally gets her time to shine in a leading role with predictably excellent results. This is not an easy role, as Mulligan’s Cassie is mentally tossed between exacting revenge and living with the burdensome thought that no matter how many male names she jots down in her well-worn notebook, it won’t undue the hurt bestowed upon her nor Nina.

Even the angriest piece of film needs some semblance of empathy behind it, and that’s where Promising Young Woman lacks. While watching, it becomes clear that Fennell’s story is comprised of a plethora of bait-and-switch or “gotcha” moments. Some are expected, some truly aren’t. They succeed in prompting a gasp but overtime work to undercut the boiling trauma and gravity of the subject matter. Then there’s Cassie motivation for carrying out her violent revenge, which just reinforces the target audience’s blanket assertion that “men are trash.” While true to a degree, it doesn’t make for a compelling conceit, as it goes unchallenged nor developed with each passing set-piece.

One of those set-pieces feels miles ahead of the others and that’s when Cassie confronts the Dean of her alma matter who played a major part in compounding Nina’s trauma instead of alleviating it. The scene is played for disquieting laughs as the shoe slowly finds itself on the other foot. It’s an insidious change of power that takes place before our eyes, and is one of the most devilishly satisfying moments Promising Young Woman has to offer.

Between Mulligan finally basking in the spotlight and Bo Burnham continuing to flex his acting chops, coupled with a feisty sense of urgency in the film’s sure-to-be-divisive climax, there’s plenty to like about Promising Young Woman. Its depiction of grief as inconsistent gives the tonal shifts some credence despite it making the project disjointed with little else to say besides what the annals of Twitter regurgitate on a never-ending basis. Fennell’s film shows the perils of when a film (or a person) operates entirely out of anger and smite. No one wins when the credits roll, and those that believe they do, it’s at best a pyrrhic victory.

NOTE: As of this writing, Promising Young Woman is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video with a subscription.

NOTE II: Catch my review of Promising Young Woman on Sleepless with Steve:

My review of Saltburn

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Chris Lowell, Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alfred Molina, and Molly Shannon. Directed by: Emerald Fennell.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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