Despite her detached and deadpan deliveries, there is a rage brewing within the titular heroine of “Promising Young Woman” (2020). This black comedy/thriller is of the #MeToo era, but that doesn’t mean the timely tale isn’t also timeless, to date.
It begins with close-ups of men’s crotches as they dance sans women at a nightclub. When they drink at the bar, they talk about excluding a female coworker from business meetings at an all-male country club. After whining about women whining, the boys’ club conversation turns to a scantily-clad patron who is literally falling down drunk.
She’s Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) and according to the onlookers, girls like her “put themselves in danger.” Yet this girl is only pretending to be inebriated until she soberly catches self-defined “nice guys” in the act of taking advantage of her. The predators she tries to scare straight range from the humorously inappropriate (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to the seriously unethical (Adam Brody) and criminally negligent (Chris Lowell). But for every one who learns his lesson, another (Sam Richardson) delivers an indignant, “You’re not even that hot.”
Cassie engages in other heated exchanges with strangers, such as construction workers who wolf whistle at her during a proverbial walk of shame, and a four-wheeling driver who calls her a “stupid c*nt” and “crazy f*cking bitch” for parking in the middle of the road. Ironically, such terms are not shocking to hear in today’s “society.” Past pop culture references prove equally disparaging as Cassie’s parents (Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge) watch “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), wherein Robert Mitchum says, “There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.”
While women are criticized for smellin’ like perfume, wearing too much makeup, and being “not even that hot,” the film counterbalances this condemnation with positive influences; caring characters who offer Cassie sound advice (Molly Shannon) and witty repartee (Laverne Cox). The plot even presents its promising young woman with a promising young man (Bo Burnham).
As the tall adoring doctor courts Cassie, the thriller heads into rom-com territory with clever dialogue and stylish montages that toy with the audience’s expectations. But don’t be fooled. Unlike the box office revenge hits “Fatal Attraction” (1987) and “Gone Girl” (2014), which feature women going to extremes to get their man, Cassie is driven more by the loss of her best friend Nina (who committed suicide after she was raped for the amusement of “nice guys” at med school) than by unrequited love.
In her pursuit for accountability, Cassie confronts the women (Alison Brie, Connie Britton) and men (Alfred Molina, Max Greenfield) who were complicit in the past. What their future brings is anyone’s guess as the movie provides twists and turns driven by Mulligan’s Oscar-worthy portrayal of a fierce and fragile protagonist.
Since her breakout role in Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” (2009), Mulligan has made a concerted effort to work with women directors, including Sarah Gavron on “Suffragette” (2015) and Dee Rees on “Mudbound” (2017). This time around, she puts herself in the creative hands of Emerald Fennell.
Named Promising Filmmaker at the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, Fennell wrote and directed “Promising Young Woman” as well as co-producing it with Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment company. She also makes a cameo as the host of “Blowjob Lips Makeup Video Tutorial” on YouTube. How’s that for a sense of humor?
Indeed, the film’s satirical tone, colorful sets and sardonic soundtrack envelop the dark story in a bright intoxicating haze. But once the trippy journey is over, it leaves viewers with a hangover no aspirin can wipe away.
“Promising Young Woman” is rated highly recommended.
Images from “Promising Young Woman” © 2020, FilmNation Entertainment, LuckyChap Entertainment, Focus Features.