Promising Young Woman: Squandered, by David Bax
In comedy, there’s this term “clapter.” It describes what happens when a comedian gains an audience’s approval by declaring something with which they are sure to agree instead of by saying funny things. The audience claps instead of laughing. Comedians who seek clapter are not, generally, thought of fondly; it’s a cheap, pandering, condescending tactic that flatters both parties. I thought about clapter a lot while watching Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell’s astringently dark comedy about rape culture. I found myself fervently and repeatedly agreeing with everything it had to say. Because how could I not? It’s a movie that exists solely to be agreed with.
Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a loner who lives with her parents and spends her evenings seeking out predatory men and teaching them lessons. When events from her past–events we learn are what spurred her to spend her free time this way–come back into the light of day, she begins her most elaborate lesson so far.
Earlier, I described Promising Young Woman as a comedy. But it’s more that Fennell has achieved the look and feel of a comedy than that she’s made a funny movie. That’s less of a criticism than it sounds, though. In addition to assembling a cast of comedians and comic actors (Sam Richardson, Jennifer Coolidge, Bo Burnham, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell), Fennell’s most impressive accomplishment is the fully realized comedic aesthetic of the film. It’s so precisely executed and perfectly thought out that it’s less a color palette than a color story.
But actual jokes are unable to find purchase in Promising Young Woman’s arid soil. Grilling a pediatric surgeon on whether or not he’s killed any kids is more harsh than funny. And, despite Mulligan and Burnham’s best efforts, when Fennell attempts to inject a rom-com energy, it’s impossible to take seriously, only further illuminating the movie’s hollow cynicism.
It’s the cynicism that makes Promising Young Woman‘s various parables of toxic masculinity similarly hollow. These aren’t straw men; you’d have to be willfully ignorant to deny that men like the ones Cassie repeatedly encounters exist and even thrive in our sick world. It’s just that they’re drawn too conveniently to make their defeat a challenge. Perhaps if Fennell opted for more surprises here–like she does in casting America’s favorite aunt Connie Britton as a nefarious and untrustworthy college dean–the set ’em up, knock ’em down nature of her gambit wouldn’t be so frustratingly obvious.
Perhaps the most fascinating way to position Promising Young Woman is as an unintended companion film to another recent release, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round. There’s a possible reading of Fennell’s film as a treatise on the dangers on drinking alcohol. It’s the thing that gives male predators the ability to assault women and the excuse that gets them off the hook. And, in case after case, it’s what Cassie uses to get men into the compromising positions in which she needs them in order to seek justice. But there’s no conflict in this. It’s a simple case of what’s good for the goose being good for the gander. Like winning a flame war in a comments section, it’s satisfying on a superficial level. But it doesn’t last.