*. A highly touted picture that received near universal critical adulation and lots of award nominations, Promising Young Woman is one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had in the last little while.
*. Essentially it’s a rape-revenge fantasy for the #MeToo generation, only different from other examples of its kind, going back over fifty years now, by the currency of its references and being bootstrapped into a rom-com. There’s also a bit of a twist at the end, but not much of one and the fact that it’s a twist only underscores how stale the rest of it is.
*. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, who dropped out of med school and started working in a coffee shop after her classmate and best friend Nina was gang raped by a bunch of fellow med students. It’s implied, I think, that Nina committed suicide at some point after this traumatic event, so now Cassie is taking her revenge on men by pretending to get drunk at local clubs and then letting guys pick her up and take her home, where she may kill them or let them go depending on how nice they are. If her murder journal is any indication she seems to be one of the most prolific serial killers in history, but presumably she’s discreet as the police don’t appear to be after her. Or maybe she isn’t killing anyone. The movie is surprisingly silent about what’s actually going on. Perhaps she’s just leaving her dates high and dry.
*. So, continuing with a bit of exposition, some years later Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s, walks into her coffee shop and falls in love. This gives Cassie the idea of getting a more specific revenge on the actual guys who raped Nina. One wonders why she hadn’t thought of that before. Or thought of the fact that her sweetie pie Ryan might not be so innocent himself. I didn’t give a spoiler alert for that twist because it’s so obvious from the get-go it doesn’t count as a twist. At least not for me.
*. There are a lot of things holding Promising Young Woman back. In the first place they seem to have been trying to get a PG rating because there’s nothing shocking or violent about it at all. I was surprised when I checked and saw that it was actually rated R. For what? According to the advisory warning: “Strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use.” Strong violence? There’s one murder at the end, but it’s no more than what you get at the end of any production of Othello. The drug use is one comic scene of a guy snorting coke. Language? On the commentary track writer-director Emerald Fennell says the line “That’s a kick in the cunt” was one of the things that led to an R rating. Really?
*. Now I can certainly respect Fennell’s desire not to go the exploitation route here and show . . . well, show anything even mildly upsetting. But doesn’t packaging all of this in a PG box undercut the story just a bit? What does Cassie really do to her dates? She’s actually quite forgiving when it comes to the people she holds responsible for Nina’s death. And come to think of it, what exactly happened to Nina? I guess we’re left to just imagine the worst, but to leave out the evidence for what was a case that we know was lost at court also undercuts the message a bit by leaving the actual crime ambiguous. If we saw the video, would we see what Cassie sees? Does she seem stable enough to be trusted?
*. That may seem like I’m taking a stand against our promising young woman, but I’m not sure why Fennell leaves this ambiguous, or even if she thought it ambiguous. Take the scene where Cassie smashes in the lights and windshield of the pick-up truck. This is because she had fallen asleep at the wheel and her car was blocking the road. The truck’s driver pulls up alongside her and he yells at her, which causes her to wake up and smash his truck with a tire iron (to the soaring strains of Wagner’s Liebestod). On the commentary Fennell seems to think this was justified. Haven’t we all wanted to do that to someone who yells at us, she asks. But surely Cassie is in the wrong here. If the truck driver had been a cop she probably would have received a fine. So are we really meant to be on her side?
*. Another way of looking at this is that in the mixture of tones that went into this movie, the rom-com elements won out. This was bad news for me, as I’m more a fan of violent psychological thrillers than I am of rom-coms. When Fennell said that Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” is her favourite song of all time on the commentary track I took a double take. Not that it’s a bad bit of ear candy, but because I didn’t even know Paris Hilton knew how to sing. That’s how far out of the target demographic I am. Though the soft ending can’t be blamed on Fennell, as it was insisted on by the studio because leaving us off with Cassie’s cremation was thought to be too bleak.
*. Fennell won an Oscar for her screenplay. I don’t like it at all. There are no memorable lines. The plot is filled with weird improbabilities that seem to take it into the realm of fantasy (or rom-com fantasy). Just to instigate a basic turn in the action Madison (Alison Brie) has to show up and give Cassie a video of Nina’s rape. Why does she (still) have this? Why does she give it to Cassie? Why does she give it to her now? Just because that’s what the plot demands.
*. If the script feels like fantasy, and it does, that’s something that’s further assisted by the set design. I made notes on this as I was watching, which is a bad thing because usually if you’re noticing set design then it’s not for a good reason. Here I was thinking that the coffee shop didn’t look at all like a coffee shop and the pharmacy not like a pharmacy and the homes and apartments not like any space that people actually lived in. All the more strange that Fennell goes out of her way to compliment the set dressing in her commentary, and how she insisted on giving it a more “cluttered” and realistic look. Cluttered? The kitchen set in Cassie’s parents’ house, which she specifically sites as being cluttered, looks pristine. The other homes and apartments look like they’ve just been professionally cleaned and staged for an open house. I didn’t see any clutter at all.
*. Another big weakness with the script is the way all of Cassie’s enemies are presented as stereotypes. They’re just there to spout off some misogynist, rape-apologist lines before crumbling before Cassie’s steely determination and empowered female gaze. As I said in my notes on Black Christmas: “This is a #MeToo film that’s all about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and rape culture and cancel culture and toxic masculinity (symbolized by the black goo that turns clean-cut kids into alpha male monsters). I don’t think this was a bad idea, but it just gets laid on so thick that you start to feel that it’s the movie’s whole reason for being.” Well, ditto here. Which leads me to another question: Is this a better movie than Black Christmas? Even a better #MeToo movie? I don’t think so. And I didn’t think all that much of Black Christmas.
*. I mention Black Christmas, but there are a lot of other movies I was thinking of too. Let’s face it, if we’re embedded in a rape-revenge plot how can you not think of Zoë Lund putting her war paint on as Thana in Ms. 45 when you see Cassie doing her lipstick in the car’s sideview mirror? And is she Frigga from Thriller or Harley Quinn from Birds of Prey as she heads off for the final showdown at the bachelor party? Finally, I think it goes without saying that in her fetish nurse uniform she’s playing Asami from Audition at the end.
*. Not surprisingly, given the nature of most DVD commentaries, Fennell doesn’t mention any of these movies as sources or inspiration. Instead she points to a couple of borrowings from Night of the Hunter, to which I can’t see any connection here at all, and Fatal Attraction, which I would have thought cast Cassie in an even worse light.
*. Yes, Carey Mulligan is good. She plays against cuteness to do what she can to save the whole project. But there’s nothing new here and even by 2020 the #MeToo stuff was all starting to sound like clichés; clichés that are then watered down further by the intermixing with a rom-com plot, a deliberate vagueness in the presentation, and a fantasy setting. That Fennell and Mulligan are Brits may have played a bit into this latter point. This just doesn’t feel like America (Ohio, to be exact). Even Hollywood America.
*. The DVD box cover comes with this pull quote: “A game changing masterpiece” (no hyphen). I struggled to read the print underneath to make out who wrote this little gem. Apparently it comes from some website called We Live Entertainment. For what it’s worth, at least one review I found at this site, by Staci Wilson, was lukewarm: “I would have liked it even more if Promising Young Woman had either been a lot darker or much funnier. As it was, I felt vaguely unsatisfied as the credits rolled.” For some reason, this review still resulted in the movie getting a score of 8 out of 10. This is one of the curious ways the hype machine works. I mean, what do you have to do to get a 6 out of 10? Or a 4?
*. Just to be as critical of Promising Young Woman as I’ve been probably invites a charge of some kind of thoughtcrime, but at the end of the day I can’t see where this is a good movie. As Matt Lynch, in one of the rare dissenting voices, put it in his review, it’s a movie “built on a shaky foundation of cheap douchebro stereotypes, retread girl-power revenge tropes, and cheeky formal gimmicks.” Then, with studio intervention, it flubs the ending and only sends us off with just desserts and another ironic reuse of “Angel of the Morning.” Now that’s sad.