Review: Promising Young Woman pulls its punches

Carey Mulligan commits fully to Emerald Fennell's stylish feature debut, but the movie is less than the sum of its parts

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (Emerald Fennell). 113 minutes. Available on digital and on demand Friday, January 15. Rating: NNN

One of 2020’s most talked-about films, Promising Young Woman had its April theatrical release derailed by the pandemic and wound up rescheduled by Focus Features as a perverse Christmas present. It’s now on VOD, where you can marvel at Carey Mulligan’s terrific performance and the sheer ambition of Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut… even as you slowly realize the movie itself is far less than the sum of its parts.

Mulligan plays Cassie, a med-school dropout turned barista in an unnamed Ohio city who spends her evenings going to clubs, pretending to be blackout drunk so that men will take her home, where they inevitably try to coerce her into sex. (She does not stand for it.) It’s not healthy, but she has her reasons. And then she meets an old classmate (Bo Burnham) who might offer her the possibility of a healthy relationship.

Writer/director Fennell – an actor and filmmaker who ran the second season of Killing Eve – employs a brightly coloured 90s rom-com aesthetic to her pitch-black material, exposing the misogynistic attitudes that run through even the most beloved pop classics. At its best and most unsettling, Promising Young Woman plays like the telepod fusion of She’s All That and I Spit On Your Grave.

Mulligan is mesmerizing as Cassie, willing herself to turn off her humanity in the service of vengeance. And Fennell’s casting instincts are unnervingly good, rolling out a stream of actors known for their warm, sensitive presence – not just Burnham but The OC’s Adam Brody, Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse, New Girl’s Max Greenfield and Veronica Mars’ Chris Lowell – as people with the potential to do monstrous harm. (She’s also willing to flip it, casting veteran heavy Clancy Brown as Cassie’s unerringly compassionate father.) The more we learn about the motivations behind Cassie’s actions, the more we’re on her side.

But for all the care Fennell takes in building her film’s emotional and stylistic momentum, there’s a yawning chasm between what Promising Young Woman thinks it’s doing, and what it actually accomplishes. It’s not just that the ending doesn’t work – like, at all – but that Fennell pulls her punches in almost every scene beforehand. It’s impossible to discuss how without spoiling the movie, but… well, you’ll see. There are problems with Promising Young Woman that no cello cover of Britney Spears’s Toxic can paper over.


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One response to “Review: Promising Young Woman pulls its punches”

  1. I just watched this last night. It was by far one of the worst films I’ve ever watched. I’m happy you gave it a bad review but I personally think you gave it too much credit. The casting was way off. Her boyfriend was way too young looking and she too old looking. The screenplay made no sense at all. They hooked us in with a decent premise that got us asking why is she obsessed with teaching men this lesson, but we never get a satisfactory answer. We never see her humanity because the filmmaker wanted to make it look as if she was 10 steps ahead and infallible. Whole portions of the story made no sense at all, such as when she invites an old schoolmate to lunch and her friend proceeds to get blind drunk for no reason. Then apparently there’s some guy standing by to take her friend up to a hotel room, all to give her the false idea that she was raped while passed out. What guy would get involved in such a scheme? It’s utter nonsense!

    Another scene shows her hunting down a lawyer that had defended one of the men on rape charges (I guess?). Apparently the lawyer had a come to Jesus mental breakdown over his wicked ways and had resigned himself to waiting (for how long?) at his house waiting for just this scene to occur so he could grovel at her feet begging for forgiveness. Huh?! On planet would that ever take place?!

    I could go on for the next hour detailing the multitude of ways this movie is a failure.

    The most amazing part is seeing today that it’s gotten a 90% on the tomato meter. What?! Even an 87% audience score! Huh!?

    AND it’s nominated for a bunch of prestigious awards! What the heck?! This just is one more confirmation that the whole world has lost its mind.

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