'Promising Young Woman' review: The film, starring Carey Mulligan, is revenge-movie dynamite

Watch the diabolically funny takedown of toxic masculinity.

January 22, 2021, 4:01 AM

Since Carey Mulligan just won the coveted best actress prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics, you'll want to check out what this exceptional British talent is up to in "Promising Young Woman," now in theaters and on demand. Early on in this diabolically funny takedown of toxic masculinity, an alleged nice guy tells a tipsy young woman that they've made a real connection. She laughs in his face since he's been too busy trying to get her into bed to learn a thing about her.

PHOTO: Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in a scene from "Promising Young Woman."
Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in a scene from "Promising Young Woman."
Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features

So let's fill him, and you, in: She's Cassandra Thomas, a med-school dropout who's about to turn 30. Her hobby is going to clubs, pretending to be blackout drunk, and waiting for someone to take her home. That's when she issues a scary wake-up call no would-be predator could possibly forget. If you need a primer on the meaning of consent, Cassie is happy to oblige.

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Welcome to one lit-fuse bundle of revenge-movie dynamite, courtesy of its thrillingly talented creator, Emerald Fennell. This British triple threat is 34, and her résumé includes writing clever young adult books (including "Monsters," and "Shiverton Hall"), acting (she's sensational as the young Camilla Parker Bowles on "The Crown"), and taking over for Phoebe Waller-Bridge as showrunner-head writer on the second season of Killing Eve (which earned her two Emmy nominations).

Amazingly, "Promising Young Woman" marks Fennell's feature debut as a writer and a director. She sets her tantalizing provocation in the here and now of American suburbia and wraps it in a candy-colored package that suggests she'll go easy on us. Don't be fooled. The result is a bonbon spiked with wit and malice. "Hey, what are you doing?" Cassie snaps when numerous dudes (played by Adam Brody, Chris Lowell, and a priceless Christopher Mintz-Plasse) respectively realize she's not really out of it when they try to take advantage.

PHOTO: Carey Mulligan in a scene from "Promising Young Woman."
Carey Mulligan in a scene from "Promising Young Woman."
Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features

What exactly is Cassie doing? There's no way this review is going to give away Fennell's endgame, except to say that the driving incident happened to a med-school friend that Cassie treated like a sister. And it's not just men who feel Cassie's wrath. Both Cassie's college chum Madison (Alison Brie) and Dean Walker (Connie Britton) stayed mum in the face of irrefutable evidence. There's no question that Cassie is flushing her own life down the tubes. Mulligan nails every nuance in this complex role -- she's phenomenal.

A bright spot enters Cassie's life in the person of Ryan (Bo Burnham, killer good), a former classmate who's now a pediatric surgeon. Their reunion involves her spitting in his coffee, a fab singalong to Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind," and the fact that his height (about 6 feet, 6 inches) will make it look like he's dating a child. Burnham, famous as a YouTube comic-musician and for his exceptional directing of "Eighth Grade," pairs irresistibly with Mulligan.

Is there hope for this couple? Not bloody likely. As the film hurtles toward a shocking climax, it takes a big swing at the wolves who tread through the MeToo era in nice-guy sheep's clothing. But, like Cassie, Fennell hits hardest at the conspiracy of silence around the predators. Fennell wants us to laugh at "Promising Young Woman." She also wants those laughs to stick in our throats. Mission accomplished.

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