Promising Young Woman (2020)

Carey Mulligan stars in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Review

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

Carey Mulligan, Laverne Cox, Bo Burnham, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge,

Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Angela Zhou, Alison Brie

Director Emerald Fennell

Guys with “bros over hos” mentalities have met their match in Cassie played by Carey Mulligan in the best performance of her career. That being said, sexual assault is no joke and while Emerald Fennell (“Killing Eve”) uses a substantial amount of humor to get the point across, the message remains undiluted. The film's title once described our protagonist until an event in her life changed everything. So how and why did Cassie go from a promising career as a doctor to a coffee shop barista? The answer is served up in a Trenta-sized portion of hot steaming sweet revenge.

“If you spend your time hoping someone will suffer the consequences for what they did to your heart, then you’re allowing them to hurt you a second time in your mind.” -Shannon L. Alder.  That may be true but Cassie is way past the hoping stage.

Meet 30-year-old Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan), you can call her “Cassie.” Granted, your first impression may be a bit misleading as she sits alone on a nightclub’s red leather couch, eyes closing, head bobbing, indicators that she passed tipsy on her way to plastered a long time ago. Cassie grabs the attention of those genuinely concerned for her well-being — you know the guys who offer a ride home — which usually leads to a wellness check (at the guy’s place) and medication (the strongest liquor on hand) before these good Samaritans decide it’s time for an examination that involves lying down on a bed and disrobing. Now imagine the surprise when Cassie springs up quicker than Regan MacNeil in “The Exorcist” and asks in a sober and commanding tone, “What are you doing?” This is followed by the guy freaking out and usually the line “What’s going on?” or my favorite, “What the f-ck?” Please refer to urban dictionary if you’re not familiar with the phrase “You got got.”

The scenario just described is repeated often by Cassie as these duped Johns become a mark in her journal as opposed to a notch on their bedpost; Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Adam Brody have cameos as a couple of Cassie’s marks. The setup would make for an interesting reality show, a cross between “Candid Camera” and “Taxicab Confessions” but it’s not, so why is Cassie doing this? Especially since the potential of violence hangs in the balance should one of these fools become angry.

As the film progresses, we discover that Cassie is a woman filled with rage, although subdued by her cover as a lackadaisical barista working at a small coffee shop owned by Gail (the wonderful Laverne Cox). When she’s not serving up lattes and espressos Cassie is often engaged in interrogations disguised as conversations with her parents played by Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge. I loved seeing Brown as the loving dad as opposed to all the villains he’s played from The Kurgan to the voices of Lex Luthor and Mr. Krabs. Coolidge of course is always reliable when it comes to laughs, her timing is spot on.

Cassie living at home at the age of 30 has the parental units concerned, that and the fact that she has no friends after dropping out of medical school. In one funny scene, mom and pop drop a hint that it may be time for Cassie to leave the nest by giving her luggage as a birthday present.

Bo Burnham is perfectly cast as Cassie’s possible love interest, former med school classmate Ryan. One day he wanders into the coffee shop, puts his foot in his mouth, and scores a date with Cassie who doesn’t remember him. It’s not really a date per se, more like a free meal. Dealing with all the sexual predators by night has taken its toll on Cassie who is rightfully cynical and jaded. Burnham, the writer-director behind 2018’s “Eighth Grade” comes across as a decent wholesome guy. As Ryan, he could be the one bright light that’s missing from Cassie’s dark world filled with endless jerks. The actor-comedian turned filmmaker uses his sweet-nature as part of his comedy routine. Opposite Mulligan, their conflicting personalities balance each other out producing real on-screen chemistry.

The less you know about “Promising Young Woman” — including the reason why Cassie is targeting predatory men — the more effective the film’s shock factor becomes. The laughs are intermixed with quite a few jolts and a bittersweet final act that reminds me of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” The original ending to the horror-thriller was much more realistic and at the last-minute Peele opted for a new ending to satisfy the audience — a brilliant move. Fennell attempts to wrap up her film in the same fashion and she succeeds for the most part but only after delivering what could have been the film’s “original ending.” A move that may leave some viewers conflicted when the credits roll.

There is also an underlying theme of atonement that is brought to the surface with the help of solid performances by Alison Brie as one of Cassie’s med school classmates and Alfred Molina as a callous lawyer, both living with the sins of their past. Although it’s a small role, Molina delivers one of the most memorable performances in the film.

“Promising Young Woman” is the true definition of a black comedy. It deals with serious subject matter by using the power of laughter to get the message across. Writer-director Emerald Fennell knocks it out of the ballpark with a remarkable debut feature. Best known as a showrunner for the delightfully dark BBC series “Killing Eve” and the author of a series of children’s fantasy and adult horror novels, Fennel is also an actor whose credits include “The Crown” and “The Danish Girl.”

Filled with vibrant colors that resemble a 90s music video and a soundtrack to match, “PYW” doesn’t rely on that decade’s biggest hits to set the tone. Britney Spear’s pitch-perfect “Toxic” shows up but only as an instrumental that gets the Jordan Peele treatment by composer-producer Anthony Willis while the rest of the soundtrack is filled with a diverse yet felicitous selection of songs by Charli XCX, Juice Newton, and Paris Hilton whose 2006 single “Stars Are Blind” becomes the best choreographed singalong film moment of 2020.

Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan whose critically-acclaimed breakthrough performance in 2009’s “An Education” led to first-rate dramatic roles in “Suffragette,” “Mudbound,” and “Wildlife,” is cast against type as avenging angel Cassie. Mulligan is funny, entertaining and packs a helluva punch while delivering a five-star performance. The film gets four stars from me and that’s only because I use a four-star rating system. “Promising Young Woman” is one of 2020’s best films.

(4 out of 4 stars)

Opens Friday, December 25 in theaters

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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