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Film Review: ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a Staggeringly Brilliant Achievement That Will Stand the Test of Time

Focus Features
“Promising Young Woman”

Wow. There’s literally no other way to express how one feels watching Promising Young Woman. Films like this don’t come around very often. Intentionally provocative, boldly funny, utterly thrilling, and literally able to keep you on the edge of your seat, this is truly something special. The audiences who saw this one at the Sundance Film Festival were incredibly lucky, but with the flick finally hitting theaters this week, a wider viewing group will be able to see what all the fuss is about. What they’ll see is nothing short of a staggering proclamation. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a masterpiece and the best movie of the year.

Without question, Promising Young Woman is the pinnacle of cinematic achievement for 2020. The way it leads you down a certain path, hinting at one thing while delivering another, is sheer brilliance. it’s best to go in a bit vague, something the marketing has done a good job of, but just know that it walks between many genres. It takes a certain touch to make the angriest possible movie about rape culture also a ridiculously fun character study, with a hell of a soundtrack, to boot. Plus, it has, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest endings I’ve ever seen. It may seem like high praise, but it’s all more than well earned.

Consider this little fact for a moment: this is Emerald Fennell‘s first film. She’s had prior success with Killing Eve, especially as a writer, but this is evidence that Fennell is a hell of a director as well. Her handling of pacing, tone, and knowing how to play with an audience’s expectations is downright extraordinary. In short order, Fennell has become a filmmaker not just worth watching out for, but worth worshipping. This is an all-timer of a first film. She’s clearly raging at the injustices of the world, but she’s doing it in a brilliantly creative manner.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) appears for all the money like a 30 year old who has not gotten her life together. A med school drop out, she works a menial job at a coffee shop, seemingly going out all night and sleeping all day. Appearing like a club rat, she concerns her boss (Laverne Cox), as well as parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge). After all, she once had such promise. What they don’t realize is her supposed black out drunk nights at bars and clubs are with a purpose, all part of an elaborate plan she’s been formulating ever since an unspoken of event in college caused her to leave campus. When a former classmate of hers named Ryan (Bo Burnham) comes into the coffee shop, a flirtation begins, but his current success also reminds her of what she needs to do.

While Ryan pursues her romantically, Cassie puts her plan into action. Told in chapters, we see her with another former classmate (Alison Brie), as well as the dean of the school (Connie Britton), among others. She’s up to something, even if it won’t quite be clear until later. Even then, Fennell still has plenty up her sleeve, and you won’t see a bit of it coming. To say any more would ruin the surprises.

Carey Mulligan (front) stars as “Cassie” and Bo Burnham (back) stars as “Ryan“ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

For anyone who has been waiting for another Carey Mulligan turn to blow them away, here you go. The finest work of her career, this exceeds already phenomenal performances in An Education and Wildlife. Mulligan is asked to do a lot here, showing a ton of range, really from one end of the spectrum to the next, but she absolutely aces it. The wittiness she gives Cassie, even with its acid tongue, is terrific, but it’s watching her go from one extreme to the other in various sequences that you just stand in awe of her talent. To call this an Oscar worthy performance is to put it mildly.

The supporting cast exists in Mulligan’s shadow, but Bo Burnham has never been better. He gives Ryan layers, making him more than a romantic partner or comic foil. He’s got depth and complications, which in turn make Mulligan’s Cassie even fuller of a character. The various supporting players are all perfectly cast, so even if they don’t get a ton of screen time, they make the most of it. Kudos to Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alfred Molina, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, et al, all of whom execute Fennell’s vision.

Emerald Fennell rages against male privilege and rape culture here, but it’s also a devilishly clever takedown of the masculine ego. Guys always want to believe that they’re the “nice ones” who aren’t like the monsters you see on the news, but those monsters never think they’re monsters, either. Fennell deftly brings that out in the various scenarios Cassie inserts herself into. The writing may not always be the most subtle, but it’s not meant to be. Fennell’s points are hammered home with crystal clarity, while her direction gives ample style to the screenplay. Consider the tightrope she walks. How many filmmakers could make this subject matter, while having a soundtrack that makes clever use of a forgotten Paris Hilton bop, or a choice Britney Spears cut? Moreover, the instantly iconic sequence where Bo Burnham and Carey Mulligan sing along to Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in a pharmacy is a scene for the ages. Fennell pulls off in Promising Young Woman what few others would even have had the willingness to attempt.

Courtesy of Focus Features

One hopes this doesn’t prove to be too cool or too edgy for the Academy. Focus Features has a hell of a one-two punch this year with Never Rarely Sometimes Always and this title. Promising Young Woman is just as worthy of acclaim, so fingers are crossed that Focus can manage dueling campaigns. Here, the focus (no pun intended) should really be on getting Carey Mulligan nominated in Best Actress and Emerald Fennell cited in Best Original Screenplay (though Best Director would be a worthy nod as well). If those two noms can happen, Best Picture is in play. Hell, if Fennell and Mulligan get in, along with something else like a Best Original Score nomination, watch out for a potential upset win somewhere.

Promising Young Woman is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Not only is it the year’s very best film, it should be required viewing for every male in high school, college, and beyond. Once again, Emerald Fennell is a genius, ladies and gentlemen. A mix of mad scientist, master conductor, and dead on accurate moralist, she and Carey Mulligan hit grand slams here. I’ve never seen anything like what they pull off. On Christmas Day, prepare to be blown away.

SCORE: ★★★★

Written by Joey Magidson

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