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Thread: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (Emerald Fennell 2020)

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    Jul 2002
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    PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (Emerald Fennell 2020)



    Diary of a damaged #MeToo revenge hobbyist

    Promising Young Woman is a slick and sharply written but wildly improbable film by a new director, Emerald Fennell, the English writer and actress who plays Camilla Parker Bowles in "The Crown," with the bold and brilliant Carey Mulligan in the lead role as the traumatized and derailed best girl friend of a sexual assault victim who committed suicide years earlier who has turned into a prankster victimizing predatory young men. However trendy, because it's a juicy portrayal of the kind of young hetero American male awfulness people are very aware of right now, this is at heart basically a revenge flick, a familiar genre that offers little opportunity for nuance, and, as Katie Rife of A.V. Club says, the movie's "nihilistic point of view isn’t as unprecedented as Fennell seems to think it is." Its genre focus wobbles from comedy to horror and many things in between. Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times calls it "a muddled mélange of black comedy, revenge thriller and feminist lecture." The screenplay sometimes is absorbed by the confused sociopathy of its main character, whose stability and professional ambitions have been overcome by rage, survival guilt, and general lostness. Yet one must admit this is sometimes an entertaining movie, with some serious firepower in its cast, that moves toward a solid dramatic crescendo (which some however hate) and tapers off with a satisfying if magic realist coda.

    The protagonist and ironically designated "promising" one is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), who threw her life away when Nina, her lifelong friend who was a student with her in medical school, committed suicide after a sexual assault by Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), a male classmate, with male comrades watching and not interfering, for which she was held responsible. (The lawyer, Jordan Green, who gained the release of the assaulter, we learn, is now jaw-droppingly repentant; and he's played by Alfred Molina, no less. Nobody else takes responsibility. Why he does is unclear.)

    While Cassie is friendless and living still at home, Al, now a successful doctor like most of Cassie's and Nina's former classmates, is getting married. Cassie will see about that, but this comes later. First, in a pre-title sequence where her prey is Adam Brody, we meet her doing what she obsessively does: posing as dead drunk at clubs on weekends to entrap unscrupulous young men into taking her home to date-rape her, then when she turns out to be dead sober, which magically scares them into a cowed and repentant state. This hobby makes for some of the movie's signal gotcha moments, but for Cassie it's more like a draining addiction. We see only a few examples, Chris Minz-Passe providing the only memorable one as Neil, a shy, plain young man who thinks he's a "nice guy" as he plies the fake-drunk Cassie with cocaine and tries to make love to her. Minz-Passe brings back memories of his beginnings in the sweetness and innocence of of 2007's Superbad, which made us sympathize with the boys trying to lose their virginity and grew out of Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks." Things have turned very sour now.

    However odd a portrayal of a young woman this is, Carey Mulligan is a terrific actress and holds our attention all the way through, creating an edge of excitement from the first with Cassie's varied exploits. But after a while it becomes clear that her life, which involves living with her worried parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) and working for an ironic Laverne Cox as a lazy barista at a coffee shop, is going nowhere and is sad. Now it appears that somewhat belatedly Cassie is ramping up her revenge project to focus on those who directly contributed to her best friend's final ordeal, visiting and terrifying the dean of "Forest University" (the safely anonymous med school) who at the time chose to believe Al Monroe and still blames Nina for her carelessness in getting drunk. Cassie has contrived a scary revenge on Dean Walker (Connie Britton), and also on Madison (Alison Brie), a female classmate who looked the other way when Nina's reputation was shattered.

    A detour into rom-com territory runs somewhat incongruously through the story when Cassie's former med school classmate Ryan (now a pediatric surgeon) runs into her working at the candy-bright coffee shop and starts very quietly wooing her. Played by the multi-talented Bo Burnham (who wrote and directed Eighth Grade), Ryan is subtler than Mulligan's other foils who come and go and seems ready to try to figure Cassie out, even when after a couple of dates and their getting serious about each other he is startled to run into her one night dressed like a floozie and being hustled home by a burly black man in a fedora. "The fedora was unforgivable," she says. (She may be desperate, but she never quite loses her verbal edge.) In this scene, two unrelated strains of the movie crash into each other.

    What Cassie may need is a man as sick as she is, like James Spader when he meets Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary, but this movie isn't prepared to go as deep as that one did. The fact that Ryan was a male med school classmate is a pretty obvious warning signal the attentive viewer can spot a mile off even if Cassie can't. The Ryan-Cassie romance is brief. It would be interesting if Cassie found could find forgiveness to keep Ryan around, but she hasn't that kind of complexity; the true depth of her self-destructiveness is never explained.

    Things come to a pulpy-comic violent end when Cassie dresses up for Al's bachelor party as a kinky nurse, a revenge on him that turns gory and horrific. The finale, at the wedding, has comedy horror elements. This whole movie was made in 23 days, and things were kept light during the shoot. How should we take it? Should we laugh, cry, or howl with rage? All that's clear is that it provides semi-serious "comic" relief in the age of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. It may help some people to let off steam, and might even introduce clueless males to the issues by the back door. But revenge stories remain one-dimensional. This movie doesn't say anything about how school, workplace, or dating can be made less exploitive or male-dominated. Its heroine is a weird mix. She's a mental wreck, yet she has endless energy to contrive elaborate show-downs for testosterone-stuffed men. It's meant to be enjoyed, not believed. Nonetheless it's well done, and Carey Mulligan's performance is an expected Best Actress Oscar nomination.

    Mulligan's clash with Dennis Harvey over his suggesting in Variety review that she wasn't hot enough for the role of Cassie and "wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on," seems excellent fodder for #MeToo debates. Harvey's observations are cruel, but not wrong. Advice to actors: don't read reviews.*

    Promising Young Woman, 113 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020 and showed at three other festivals listed on IMDB, Luxembourg City, Glasgow, and Madison. US release Dec. 25, 2020, internet Jan. 15, 2021. Screened online Feb. 19, 2021. Metascore: 72%
    *The National Society of Film Critics has published an objection to Variety's. apology added at the top of the review and defending Dennis Harvey.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-19-2021 at 11:32 PM.


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