‘Promising Young Woman’ Trips Over Itself

But film features career-best performance by Carey Mulligan

By Todd Hill

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a med school dropout with vengeance in her soul, in Emerald Fennell’s debut feature film “Promising Young Woman.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features

(3 stars out of 5)

“Promising Young Woman” is the feel-bad movie of the 2021 film awards season, and a lot of people appear to have a problem with that.

I don’t quite understand why. This is a film about rape, and tangentially the #MeToo movement, which hardly suggests a laugh riot. What are these people waiting for next, a Black Lives Matter musical? Movies about profound social ills are generally not uplifting. What they are, most of the time, are documentaries.

“Promising Young Woman” is decidedly not that. It looks like a candy-colored romp. If you dropped in on the right 15 minutes and then dropped back out again you could come away thinking it’s a romantic comedy. You would be so wrong.

Having seen the film, having thought about it enough to attempt to write intelligently about it, hopefully, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s trying to accomplish or even say, which is another way of saying that it seems to have failed in the attempt.

It’s perhaps easiest to label “Promising Young Woman” a satire, even if it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what it’s trying to satirize. But film satire is as much a mood or feeling as a target, so perhaps that’s OK to some extent. I’m dating myself when I identify two satires that work best, but I think it’s hard to top “Heathers” (1988) or “To Die For” (1995). Despite its Oscar nomination for Best Picture, “Promising Young Woman” is not in the same ballpark. It doesn’t even share the same Zip code as those two earlier classics.

What it does have is Carey Mulligan in the starring role of Cassie Thomas, a 30-year-old med school dropout with vengeance in her soul. Her best friend, Nina, was gang-raped in that same med school and later killed herself, and Cassie has therefore taken it upon herself to entrap men at clubs by feigning sloppy drunkenness and then turning on these creeps once they have her in their apartments, where they proceed to take advantage of her supposed vulnerability.

Cassie’s primary motivation appears to be humiliation, although at the film’s climax she talks about carving her friend’s name in a man’s stomach. But there’s more going on in this picture, written and directed by Emerald Fennell, that ultimately leaves it tripping over itself. Early on, Cassie comes across as rather pathetic as she puts her life on hold to obsess over her crusade. Then she meets a guy — a decent guy, played very decently by Bo Burnham — and it looks like Cassie will get her life on track, until she suddenly goes off the deep end, followed by a real WTF conclusion.

The cumulative effect is just one of whiplash.

“Promising Young Woman” does have its meta moments. At one point, a man accuses Cassie of not being hot enough to do what she’s doing, although of course her looks don’t remotely matter in this context. A longtime film critic even fell into this trap, noting in his review that Mulligan doesn’t look like, say, Margot Robbie (one of this film’s producers). He quickly lost his job.

Cassie is indeed a departure for Mulligan, who rose to fame portraying cute-as-a-button female leads in period pieces. She’s received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for this departure, and she could very well win the award (I think she should), although the surprise generated by her performance is entirely the byproduct of an industry perception that she couldn’t convincingly play a character like this. I’m sure Mulligan already knew what she was capable of.

I’m also entirely certain that had this awards season not come on the heels of the strangest year in movie history, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic, with scores of high-profile, award-contending films delayed until whenever theaters would once again be open, “Promising Young Woman” wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near a Best Picture nomination. It’s a promising effort by a first-time filmmaker, but I’ll stop there.

1 hour and 53 minutes. Rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use. Debuted Jan. 15, 2021 on VOD.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7i5kiFDunk8

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat. For his longer articles on all the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, visit Oscar Bait, or https://medium.com/oscar-bait.

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.