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‘Promising Young Woman’ Shows the Limits of Cinematic Rage

The thriller overwhelms us with feminist talking points until a finale for the ages

Anyone watching “Promising Young Woman” should get college credit toward their Gender Studies degree.

Few films wear their activism on their sleeve quite like Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut. It’s like a candy-colored TED talk on sexual assault.

That’s not always a bad thing.

In-your-face messaging can work if it’s delivered with a singular, smashing tone. “Promising Young Woman” got that memo, and then swiftly crumpled it up and dropped it in the circular file.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN - Official Trailer [HD] - This Christmas

 

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a woman who shows up at local bars looking like she’s had three too many. Her makeup is smeared, her head can’t stop drooping and her body language suggests she’ll do whatever a man, any man, wants.

She’s stone cold sober, though.

It’s part of her plan to entrap men hungry for defenseless conquests. Or, to put it bluntly, predators.

Cassie pauses her routine after a meet-cute moment with Ryan (Bo Burnham) at the coffee shop where she (barely) works. He’s everything the creepy men she exploits aren’t -- kind, smart and willing to go slowly with the right woman.

Can Cassie quit her bar hopping and connect with Ryan instead? What does her old college have to do with her nightclub ritual? And why did she abandon a “promising” medical career in the first place?

Questions, questions, and for a while we’re eager to learn the answers. 

Fennell stages “Promising Young Woman” with plenty of style and sizzle. The film looks gorgeous, from its colorful compositions to Cassie’s evolving wardrobe. We’re hungry to learn more about her, the emotional pain that’s never far from the surface and what her clubbing end game might be.

The message, though, is clear. Sexual predators are all around us. They never get caught, and the culture emboldens them in a cruel ways. Even women quietly allow it to happen, shown by small but crucial characters enlivened by Connie Britton and Alison Brie.

The screenplay feels like it was written after watching MSNBC tear into Brett Kavanaugh circa 2018.

No nuance or fact finding. Just pure rage.

Again, you can deconstruct Fennell’s righteous overreach while acknowledging the truths embedded within. The fury baked into Cassie’s story is ripe for a gripping vigilante feature, a devastating character study or an over-the-top satire of social mores.

“Promising Young Woman” flirts with all three paths, watering itself down in the process.

Promising Young Woman Clip - Cassandra (2020) | Movieclips Coming Soon

The Cassie/Ryan romance delivers the film’s weakest link, downshifting the film’s furious momentum. Even Cassie’s clueless parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) seem thinly sketched, even by genre standards.

And that’s the core issue with “Promising Young Woman.” The thriller is too malnourished to have an emotional impact, even though it’s fun watching faux Alpha Males get their comeuppance.

A short scene where Cassie stares down a bunch of hooting construction workers is similarly perfect.

The story, through no fault of a dazzling Mulligan, pulls enough punches to weaken its visceral might. Cassie’s nightclub stalking, and its curious limitations, offers a prime example.

Until the ending, that is.

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“Woman” wraps with a rant that brims with societal rage. And it works, oh does it ever. Fennell’s camera is unflinching here, and rightly so.

The writer/director should have held back on the overt messaging until this moment. As is, the sequence still simmers with highly focused outrage, making the movie suddenly worth the pre-release buzz. The moment’s ferocity still reminds us of lectures we’ve already heard in the first two acts.

That leaves us eager to see what other stories Fennell has in mind, and why she seems ripe for a rewarding career with this spotty, but promising debut.

HiT or Miss: “Promising Young Woman” shows the pitfalls of letting overt messaging flood a movie’s DNA.

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