‘Promising Young Woman’ shows a Monte Cristo of #MeToo

Malice becomes Carey Mulligan; it makes her light on her feet. In Promising Young Woman, she plays Cassie, a coffee shop barista who fakes getting wasted on weekends, waits for guys to attempt to rape her, and, after threatening them, writes their names in a notebook whose entries keep expanding. She’s up to the challenges in tyro Emerald Fennell’s script and direction; the film, though, can’t settle on a tonal approach. Unfolding as high (and black) comedy, it gets soppier in its last third as if Fennell couldn’t contain the forces that turn Cassie into the Monte Cristo of #MeToo.

Introducing Cassie in Jesus Christ pose against a bar’s fake leather seat back is an example of Fennell’s approach to the material. Cassie plays martyr the better to interfere with the machinations of the nice guys who buy her drinks, offer to take her home, expect sexual payback, and return to jobs and girlfriends the next morning. This is Promising Young Woman at its most ruthless. The way Fennell has placed the audience on Cassie’s side turns these scenes into mirrors. How many of us have endured men prattling about their cultural literacy for the sake of getting us into bed? How many men have been those men? I was particularly aghast watching Superbad‘s Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil, an ass who flashes his knowledge of David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster like other men would an American Express (Fennell plays with the collective awareness of Mintz-Plasse as McLovin’; here’s the little bastard a dozen years later).

Using its gumball-colored visual design to reflect Cassie’s psychology, Promising Young Woman unfolds as a female Clark Kent/Superman story. Stuck at home with uncomprehending parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), she relishes her performance as victim in front of these dudes; she comes alive, but the effort makes her somewhat sullen too, and Fennell’s closeups capture the tug of war. The film participates in its own tug of war at the appearance of Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham, comedian and writer-director of Eighth Grade), a former med school colleague with whom Cassie becomes involved after a protracted meet-cute. A gangly fellow with a face like Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, Burnham uses his white dude casualness to wear Cassie down; he’s quick with a quip but otherwise not very bright. Eventually Fennell reveals why Cassie dropped out of school, devotes her life to meting out punishment.

Some audience members will argue for the slackening of the film’s pace during these moments. The film takes a breather. That’s the trouble: Promising Young Woman would’ve been more moving if it had maintained the frantic outrageousness of its first half hour. At times, especially in its quieter moments, Mulligan plays Cassie as a version of the Manic Pixie Girl which the writing and direction have ostensibly been deconstructing. Hence the importance of its soundtrack: the bold pop of Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” Spice Girls’ swoon of a teen ballad “2 Become 1,” DeathByRomy’s transformation of “It’s Raining Men” into slow goth worthy of Sky Ferreira. When the attention wanders, Fennell cues up another banger. And there’s Carey Mulligan herself. Sashaying down the street, scraped, hot dog in hand dripping ketchup as red as fresh blood, she’s walking demolition.


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