‘Promising Young Woman’ x King of Cups

Photo: Focus Features.
Carey Mulligan courts Oscar once again in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. Courtesy of Focus Features

Fuck Santa Claus – this extended, pandemical holiday movie season it’s Carey Mulligan’s Promising Young Woman the one who gets to judge who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

Indeed, Academy Award nominee Mulligan (An Education, Drive) is back on screens as Cassie, a character conceived and brought to vivid life by Emerald Fennell in her feature debut as writer-director (Fennell also acts; you might know her as Camilla on Netflix’s The Crown). This is the showier, more theatrical (whatever that means right now…on COVID-19) of Mulligan’s output for the year (the aforementioned streamer has her other showcase, The Dig – check it out), for Promising Young Woman is the film that from the get-go opens with an evisceration of the basic pair of khaki pants so synonymous with a particular sort of guy. (Sorry, Steve Kornacki, but there’s only so much you can do four trousers.)

Fennell soundtracks her self-assured debut with a ruthless, yet precise selection, with “Boys” by Charli XCX setting the tone, when we meet Cassie, drunk and alone in her officewear at a bar. Good thing nice-guy Adam Brody’s there to offer to take her home. Later, when he goes to make his inevitable move, the Spice Girls’ “2 Become 1” plays; he doesn’t know it yet, but Cassie just hooked his ass. Mr. Nice Guy’s getting a night he won’t soon forget, and she’s getting another check mark in her (death?) log. Boys will be boys, and med-school dropout Cassie, she of the harmless pastel rainbow manicure, is giving out killer favors. Who’da thunk.

The director’s framing is the stuff of legend. Very The Morning After. And her story’s populated by the likes of Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, and Connie Britton as women with varying degrees of allegiance to Cassie, with men including those portrayed by Christopher Superbad Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson (HBO’s Veep) featuring in Cassie’s revenge fantasies. Something happened in Cassie’s life that affected her this deeply that she’d bypass her own potential to get her avenging angel on, you know. Her mother, Susan (Jennifer Coolidge), is worried.

Eighth Grade writer-director Bo Burnham also co-stars, as a college friend of Cassie’s, who wants to go out on a date with her, to catch up and to pine after her. Yeah, he is that open – so he is either trouble or in trouble. He doesn’t quite pass her rigorous standard, but she takes a chance on him, on love. She doesn’t know it yet, but this may cost her her ass.

Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a stylish thrill (now on Demand, soon on HBO Max). Let the haunting strings of the instrumental take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that anchor the film’s promotional blitz draw you in, for you don’t know this yet, but Mulligan already owns your ass. Her Cassie may be a stunted tragic figure, but she is stronger than she cares to know, and she cannot help but bring a light to an all-consuming darkness. That is the true nature of her weapon, after all.

Cheeky the way these things sometimes happen.

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