Promising Young Woman review: Carey Mulligan’s ambitious revenge tale

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

Carey Mulligan’s brutal performance is the glue that binds the ambitious but uneven Promising Young Woman together. 

In spite of the hectic nature of 2020 on the whole, this year’s film landscape has been one marked by a relative lack of internet fervor-inciting films. Sure, there have been some juicy behind the scenes goings-on to fuel movie fans and their need for debate, but with no Avengers: EndgameRise of Skywalker, or Joker, there haven’t been many films this year to truly incite chaos and divisiveness across the internet. But, at the eleventh hour, in waltzes Promising Young Woman, a film which will surely leave audiences divided in its portrayal of a revenge tale gone wrong.

Starring Carey Mulligan, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman follows the life of 30-something Cassie – a beautiful and (yes, once-promising) young woman who was once a med student but is currently stuck working at a coffee shop and living with her parents.

At first, we aren’t sure exactly what happened in Cassie’s past to derail her life so drastically, but what we do know is that she’s living a double life. While she may be serving coffees by day, by night, she’s dressing up in all sorts of borderline outlandish outfits, going to clubs and bars, and acting drunk in the hopes of ensnaring a would-be date-raper and teaching them a lesson.

Before we touch on the film’s execution, we feel compelled to note that Promising Young Woman, as a concept, is a much-needed film. It almost feels like the alternate point-of-view response to all of those skeevy, early 2000s bro comedies where men lie, take advantage of, and deceive women in order to use them as sexual conquests and for the film to get a few cheap laughs. Promising Young Woman is the Hustlers to that subgenre’s The Wolf of Wall Street – a view from the ‘prey”s point of view.

As that “prey”, Carey Mulligan’s performance is just as multi-faceted as her character Cassie. On the one hand, this kind of cool, calculating, effortlessly charming anti-heroine feels like a role that Mulligan was born to play. She slips into the near-psychotic persona so easily and believably that you find yourself rooting for Cassie, even when things go off the rails. This is a character (as the movie bills) with two distinct sides, but when she’s Cassie-on-the-prowl, she’s a mesmerizing, and terrifying figure – with the same sort of magnetism and unpredictability that Killing Eve‘s Villanelle (another Fennell-penned character) possesses.

Watching the physical transformation in her posture and her gaze when she suddenly drops the drunken act never gets old – it’s just as shocking to the audience as it is to the men she’s ensnaring, despite the fact that (if you’ve seen the trailer) that first moment was unfortunately spoiled. As fun as those revenge scenes are, though, that’s not the entirety of Cassie’s character, nor is it even the majority – when she’s not at bars doling out her own form of vigilante justice, she’s a choppily written character that feels underbaked and lacking inconsistency.

In the first act Cassie meets the sort of geekily-charming Ryan (Bo Burham) and once the two begin dating, there’s a good 45-minute chunk of the film that feels like the 2nd act of a rom-com has been unceremoniously dropped into the middle of a dark comedy. Cassie becomes cliche and giggly – throughout uninteresting and oh-so in love with Ryan. Granted, it does make the reveal of Ryan’s character a better gut-punch later, but it feels like that surprise was at the expense of Cassie’s character, and a significant portion of the runtime.

That middle section of the film – complete with coffee shop meet-cutes, convenience store sing-alongs, and sweet little montages, might feel like a self-aware criticism of the romance genre as a whole, were it not so awkwardly engrained with the rest of the film. Promising Young Woman has a crippling issue with tone and pacing – and whether the sudden jerks between genres are deliberate or not, they end up happening at the expense of Cassie’s character and the narrative as a whole.

Just when we think we’re making progress in the far-more-interesting storyline of Cassie getting revenge for her now-departed best friend, we suddenly spend 10 minutes watching Burnham and Mulligan flirt in a coffee shop or tell each other goofy jokes. Granted, they do have chemistry, but it feels like such a disservice and a distraction from the meat of the narrative. It’s not just the shifts in tone that are jarring, either, the film has a huge problem deciding which of the two narratives it’s telling should take precedence over the other, and in the end, it chooses incorrectly.

Because we know that Cassie and Ryan’s relationship is too good to be true – thanks to the film’s self-aware nature and the premise as a whole – it feels like an insincere waste of time watching them get to know each other. We watch them grow close, but we can’t help but wonder when the other shoe is going to drop because we know what kind of movie we’re watching. The same, unfortunately, goes for pretty much any scene where Cassie shows genuine vulnerability – it almost doesn’t feel real, because we’ve seen her manipulate others so well that it’s difficult to discern when we’re supposed to feel for her, or if this is just another elaborate ruse.

As much as we disliked how much time the film wasted trying to build a relationship between Ryan and Cassie, though, we couldn’t help but love Ryan himself. We’re familiar with Bo Burnham from his stand-up comedy, so he seems like an unorthodox pick for the romantic lead, but he has exactly the right amount of wit, humor, and yes, charm, to play opposite Mulligan. The chemistry is there, without question, and we sincerely hope Burnham takes more leading man roles in the future because he knocked this one out of the park. After the twist about Ryan (which we won’t entirely spoil here), his character suddenly feels a lot less like a person and more like an obstacle or a plot device, but that’s through no fault of Burnham’s own.

In addition to Burnham, the rest of the cast is filled to the brim with a (frankly jaw-dropping) amount of talent. Among the ensemble are Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Sam Richardson, and Alfred Molina – just to name a few. Alison Brie and Connie Britton are the highlights of the bunch, as two women each separately caught in the crossfire of Cassie’s quest for revenge, and although it’s fun to see so many familiar faces pop up, we can’t help but feel like having that much talent in your film is putting the actors to waste – many of whom don’t have more than 5 minutes of screen time.

The one exception to this rule is Max Greenfield’s Joe, the ultimate target of Cassie’s quest for revenge, which brings us to… the film’s last act. Without a doubt, the ending of Promising Young Woman is gutsy. It’s not predictable in the slightest, and it’s one that will likely leave many a viewer unhappy. We can picture of a version of Promising Young Woman where the cynical ending works – because it would be unfortunately resonant and true to the stories of so many rape victims who never find justice. However, the way the film plays the last act is almost for comedy – and not the same clever kind of humor that fueled the first act.

No, instead Greenfield’s character almost becomes the main character – Cassie is passive, grossly underserved, and then disposed of. It could be poignant, and we’re not opposed to an upsetting ending, but the tone is all wrong, and the story itself is fundamentally unsatisfying. It’s difficult to discern between choices that were deliberate, and choices that were just sloppy – and while the ending could work in theory, the execution fumbles so significantly that it’s upsetting to watch – but upsetting in the wrong way. At the last second, Promising Young Woman undercuts its own ideology.

There’s certainly a lot to love about Promising Young Woman. It’s at times genuinely clever, with a sharp, referential wit and self-awareness you don’t often see in films of this caliber. It has all the right music queues and aesthetic choices, not to mention a stacked cast, but when it fumbles, it fumbles hard.

The wild fluctuations in tone and pacing, as well as the gutsy but poor-tasting ending, hurt what could otherwise have been a fantastic film – but even though in the end we left disappointed, we still can’t help but encourage you to give Promising Young Woman a watch for yourself, and decide where you stand on its ambitious finale.

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Do you plan to give Promising Young Woman a look? Sound off in the comments.