Where the Boys Aren’t

‘Promising Young Woman’, the Metooiest movie of the #Metoo era

I saw the Promising Young Woman movie. This has been kicking around the film festival circuit for more than a year, but the film festivals don’t invite me because they’re afraid of my ideas. Now Promising Young Woman is in theaters, and I’ve seen it along with at least 15 other paying customers. Promising Young Woman is a disturbing, and occasionally darkly comic, sexual-assault revenge fantasy. It’s the Metooiest movie of the #metoo era. I found it difficult to watch, and not just because one of men that the protagonist revenges is a hack novelist named Neil.

Directed by:Emerald Fennell
Written by: Emerald Fennell
Starring:  Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Christopher Lowell, Laverne Cox
Running time: 100 min

Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, who lives in the part of suburban Ohio that looks exactly like southern California. Years ago, Cassie abandoned her promising career as a medical student to take care of her friend Nina, the victim of a terrible sex crime. Now Nina is gone. Cassie spends her days working at a crummy coffee shop and her nights trolling the clubs, faking drunkenness so “nice guys” can take her home. When she gets back to their apartments, she surprises them. The movie implies violence, but never shows it explicitly, at least not until the horrifying final act. And even then, it’s not what you might think.

When Cassie runs across an old med school classmate, a classically “nice guy” played by the singing comedian Bo Burnham, her old med school demons surface. Cassie’s thirst from vengeance swerves from the general to the specific. The movie’s plot comes into view, though maybe not as crisply as it should.

Director and writer Emerald Fennell is a friend of Phoebe Waller-Bridges and comes from the Fleabag/Killing Eve branch of the entertainment family tree. She was the head writer for Killing Eve’s season 2. Like Killing Eve, Promising Young Woman is an emotionally involving, visually arresting feminist work, with bright pop colors providing a direct ironic contrast to the dark subject matter. Mulligan is a great actress, but she delivers a shockingly good performance even by her standards, at once moving and also scary. The script reserves ire not just for the perpetrators of sexual assault, but also for the people around them, friends, lawyers, classmates and bureaucrats, who enable sex crimes to happen.

That said, the story meanders around quite a lot. Mulligan is as fully-formed as a character can be, but the film surrounds her with cardboard cutouts. It completely wastes Laverne Cox as Mulligan’s boss at the coffee shop. The great comic actress Jennifer Coolidge, as Mulligan’s mother, has about as much depth as a Jell-O mold. Molly Shannon plays Nina’s mother in a scene the length of an insurance commercial. Alison Brie enjoys a nice scene or two as a former classmate of Cassie’s, but the script names her character “Madison McPhee.” Burnham is the only character who gets any significant screen time other than Mulligan, but he mostly exists for her and us to discard, and also he appears to live in a luxury hotel.

Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan, not the doctor you want to see, in ‘Promising Young Woman.’

Promising Young Woman saves its villain, played by Christopher Lowell from TV’s GLOW, for the final act. When he appears, it’s a nauseating doozy. But it takes too long to get to him, so his denouement doesn’t feel quite as earned as it should. The best scenes involve tense encounters between Cassie and her “victims,” like Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. They crackle with “what will she do?” tension. A scene with Connie Britton as a permissive med-school dean has a similar frisson. But the scenes with the characters who actually mean something to the story often fall flat.

This is a weird, challenging movie, designed to make viewers squirm. At times, it feels more like a post on Medium than a film. It’s about as subtle, as my late grandmother used to say, as a root canal. But you can’t deny Mulligan’s powerful performance. It’s definitely an idiosyncratic work with things to say. And, unlike certain recent superhero movies, it found room in the budget to pony up for some excellent soundtrack numbers, including a Paris Hilton song and Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic.’  If some future person wants to know what the cultural vibe of 2018-2020 was like, this is one of the movies I would hand them. Like the movie itself, it’s been interesting, even if it hasn’t always been fun.

This concludes my review of the Promising Young Woman movie.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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