Promising Young WomanReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/21/20 11:01:17
“Promising Young Woman” arrives in theaters (among other delivery systems) intent on doing more than just merely entertaining audiences—it wants to shake them and provoke them and stand as a clarion call to those who need to hear it that the bad old ways that have existed for so long are coming to an end and woe unto anyone who is unwilling/able to get with the program. (It also clearly wants to score a few Oscar nominations as well, but it is only slightly less upfront about that.) As someone who is always down for a cinematic provocation, that sounds great because Lord knows we could always use more movies designed to shake things up and send viewers out into the parking lot—even a metaphorical one, as the case may be these days—arguing passionately about what it is that they have just seen. My only request along those lines is that the film in question at least has the sense and common decency to be good or, at the very least, bad in an interesting way. Unfortunately, “Promising Young Woman” fails to clear that one hurdle and the result is one of the most bizarrely and infuriatingly bad movies of the year—a stab at would-be outrage that starts off with a potentially incendiary premise and proceeds to squander it with a screenplay that pulls its punches more often than a boxer throwing a fight before lurching into a conclusion so misconceived that it essentially winds up denuding its own subversive stance right before our disbelieving eyes.The promising young woman of the title is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), who had briefly been a star student at medical school but who dropped out under mysterious circumstances and who now, at the age of 30, is still living at home with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and spends her days working behind the counter of a coffee shop for a sassy boss (Laverne Cox) who appears to be the closest thing she has to a friend. However, she has a secret pastime that she indulges in as well. Once a week, she goes out to nearby bars and appears to get completely drunk. Inevitably, a “nice guy” type will step in as her savior, only to turn gallantly escorting her home to a stop at his place for another drink before heading to the bedroom to rape her. At the moment of no return—sometimes with the offender’s head between her legs—Cassie reveals that she is actually cold sober and reads them the riot act about their behavior and its implications before heading home to make another notation in a notebook that appears to be jam-packed with them.
Why would anyone do such a thing—let alone make a habit of it—and constantly put themselves in a position of great vulnerability without any obvious protective measures other than a curt tone? It seems that when she was in med school, her best friend and fellow classmate was raped at a campus party and when she reported it, her accusations were shunted aside by a system that seemed more concerned about protecting the accused and his seemingly bright future than in giving the victim any sort of voice, let alone something resembling justice. Everyone else —even the victim’s mother (Molly Shannon)—has managed to move on but Cassie is unable to do the same. Thus, she goes about her weekly reverse “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” scenario but what one might write off as a strange and potentially dangerous form of therapy designed to help Cassie process her grief and her inability to protect her friend soon reveals itself as a form of practice for something bigger.
That something bigger is instigated one day when another one of her former classmates, Ryan (Bo Burnham), comes into the coffee shop one day. He instantly puts his foot in his mouth but is sweet-natured and self-effacing enough to begin to pierce through the shell that Cassie has built up around herself and cause her to believe that he really and truly is a nice guy. He also inadvertently proves to be the catalyst for her grand plan when he tells her that the student who raped her friend and got away with it scot-free and is now a prosperous doctor, has returned to the U.S. after time overseas and is even getting married soon. This news inspires her to start going after the people who she holds more directly responsible for her friend’s fate—including a fellow classmate (Allison Brie) who dismissed her accusations by saying it was the victim’s fault since she was drinking and flirting, a school administrator (Connie Britton) more concerned with sweeping the whole thing under the rug and the rapist’s aggressive lawyer (Alfred Molina), who threatened to destroy her in court—and forcing them to face the consequences of their actions. This all leads up to the rapist himself, whose raucous bachelor party she crashes posing as a stripper in a nurse’s outfit whose routine does not unfold quite as expected.
Debuting writer-director Emerald Fennell, whose most prominent previous credit is writing several episodes of “Killing Eve,” clearly knows all of the talking points that she wants to hit here about how the entire system that too often looked askance at women making accusations of sexual assault—especially if those being accused were people in positions of power—needs to be brought down by any means necessary. Hell, it even uses those talking points as literal talking points by having Cassie actually saying things like “It’s always the promising young man, but what about the victim?” and such. The trouble is that Fennell doesn’t really have anything new or interesting to say about the subject that hasn’t been said in projects running the gamut from Abel Ferrara’s grind house classic “Ms. 45” to “Veronica Mars” to the stunning French import “Revenge.” Even the infamous sleazo classic “I Spit on Your Grave,” for all of its flaws (and trust me, I am not about to launch into anything even remotely resembling a defense for that one) and grimy approach, genuinely touched a raw nerve about a survivor processing their sense of rage and helplessness by going after the ones who took everything from her in the grisliest ways imaginable. By comparison, Fennell brings nothing new to the party other than its premise and a slick visual style—it is the kind of movie that you can imagine Miramax successfully marketing back in the day.
And while it is floundering in terms of its overall point and purpose, “Promising Young Woman” proves to be equally awkward regarding the particulars of the plot. The whole conceit of Cassie’s nocturnal targeting of the bar crowd is so unlikely and so ripe for potential disaster that you expect there to be some scene in which the guy planning to rape her responds to her tongue lashing with more than just sheepishness but that never comes to pass—the closest thing to it comes when Ryan sees her coming out of a bar with some guy and misunderstands the situation; leaving both him and Cassie feeling sad. The ways in which she targets those who helped destroy her friend are a little too elaborately constructed to be believed and, in at least one case, somewhat unfair as the person in question might not have been in much of a position to have done anything even if they wanted to do so. Face it—in her new song “no body, no crime,” Taylor Swift was able to conjure up a revenge narrative that was smarter, funnier, more incisive and infinitely more satisfying than this film in just 3 1/2 minutes and she even managed to throw in an appearance by Haim for good measure.
Then there is the entire final act, which has been garnering the most controversy and which I will not give any specifics. Suffice it to say, it also fails on two level. Purely from a narrative perspective, it is straining so hard to be clever and ironic that it fails to come across as anything other than a gimmick—the kind of ending that someone dreams up first and then tries to reverse-engineer a story to which it can be appended. That is bad enough but what makes it especially unconscionable is the fact that it takes the very same power structure that Cassie and the film have theoretically been railing against and has them turn out to be the ones who set everything right in the end. Had this been done with no small amount of bitter irony—just one more way in which the efforts of women are swept under the rug by those in power—it might have worked but there is no sense of that here. For some viewers, seeing this may strike them as being as personally offensive as it must have been for civil rights demonstrators to watch “Mississippi Burning” and discover that the real heroes of that era were actually J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI and no amount of Juice Newton crooning “Angel of the Morning” as counterpoint on the soundtrack can begin to cover that up.
What is most irritating about “Promising Young Woman,” a film that is practically overflowing with irritating things, is that there are elements floating around in it that suggest the good movie that they might have inspired. Carey Mulligan is a fantastic actress—that we all know—and even though her character is ultimately as contrived and implausible as everything on display, she tears into the part with such fierce conviction and determination that she probably comes closer to making something out of it than any other name actress working today. Alfred Molina and Molly Shannon each have but one scene but they make so much of them that I found myself wishing that there could have been more of them. As I mentioned early, Fennell does have an eye as a filmmaker and there is one scene, in which Cassie lashes out at a motorist who makes the mistake of lipping off to her at an intersection, that doesn’t really fit into the narrative per se but gives a true sense of both the rage that is driving her along and the sense of loneliness and isolation that is the price that she is paying as a result.The problem is that nothing else about the film taps into the authenticity of that moment nor effectively mines it for either drama or satire. If you want to see a rape-revenge drama that is stylishly made while still offering up recognizable human behaviors amidst the carnage, check out “Revenge,” though perhaps not on a full stomach. However, if you want to see a film that treats a potentially powerful premise in the shallowest manner imaginable but makes up for its lack of insight with a scene in which the main characters sing along with “Stars are Blind,” Paris Hilton’s stab at pop-music immortality, in its entirety, then you—and pretty much only you—are in luck. How to explain why something this junky has been receiving so many rave reviews as of late? I dunno--must be a lot of nice guys out there.
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