Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★½

A little cleverness can go a long way, but what happens when there's too much of it? We wind up with a film that might look a little like this, one that has some very salient and unquestionably topical points to make, and it is also a film that tries perhaps too hard to pile on the swerves and rug-pulls too often that it winds up, well, kinda predictable in the end. A strange phenomenon, to be certain, yet there's the sense that writer/director Emerald Fennell sees no other path forward with how committed she is to carrying through the film with a sense of precision throughout that never feels like she's in any danger of stumbling as a filmmaker with the exacting nature of, well, everything that's on the screen and in the text itself. Despite being a thriller at heart, it proceeds something more along the lines of a rom-com, which is an unusual combination that yields some effective results on a visual level throughout with the ways the framing can put you at a state of unease with how used to one is to the inherent warmth of those calming pastels hiding much starker content in them than normal.

But despite the shifting allegiance the viewer has with Cassie herself and some very strong points to be made about how much society forgives heinous acts as mere youthful indiscretion when future careers are at stake (frankly, it is an act of tremendous restraint that any of our villains didn't have either the first name of Brett or the last name of Kavanaugh with how much they all evoke his slimy rise to the top), it's hard for me to not feel like those elements are undercut by the clumsy way the script keeps piling on the contrivances in an effort to seem a lot smarter on the surface, only to wind up making it feel pretty dumbed down with the sketchy relationship it has with the deeper thriller elements to make their inclusion feel natural. It's one thing to set up a big, big twist in the story early on for anyone that was sharp enough to catch it, but to have its reveal eventually handed to us (literally, in this case) in such a clunky manner takes a lot of wind out of its sails, and what happens afterward only gets more contrived as you pray it doesn't take the easy way out in offering up the crowd-pleasing ending that it does unfortunately decide upon. This was a film that didn't need to be despairing by the end, but it needed a pretty bow to wrap everything up even less than that.

The good is undoubtedly very good here, with Carey Mulligan given a difficult role that she's able to play rather well in terms of being able to empathize with her plight while also getting you to kinda hate her for the way she's going about it at times for the right reasons and her big co-star Bo Burnham making it even easier to hate how multi-talented he's turning out to be with a killer supporting role, and Fennell is clearly operating with good instincts as a filmmaker in terms of how to depict the story and the way she is able to play around with tropes and touchstones that show she's got what it takes in the future to put some real bite in her bark. Yet the script issues are just too blatant to ignore here in spite of their good intentions and logic, as it takes far too many left turns at its junctions without realizing that it winds up back right where it was after a while, leading to a disappointing enough conclusion to make one forget what it was trying to argue for in the first place. It does beg the question: when one is trying to have everything be clever, is it clever at all? Pulling back could have worked wonders here in getting a more resonant film that could have hit the viewer like a cannonball to the face, but it's hard not to feel like it winds up tossing a towel into it instead.

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