Monday, March 22, 2021

Two Women: Promising Young Woman and I’m Your Woman

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman begins as a black comedy-horror picture about the revenge that Cassie (Carey Mulligan) takes on young men who see a single woman drunk off her ass in a bar as an opportunity to get laid. It turns out that she’s motivated by the suicide of her best friend Nina, who was raped at a med-school party and couldn’t get justice because of the callousness of their social group, the indifference of the administration and the brutality of the rapist’s expensive lawyer. The movie, which was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, is so single-minded – wasn’t there one woman who viewed the video the rapist’s best pal circulated of Nina’s humiliation who didn’t find it hilarious? – that its opportunistic manipulation of the audience in the #MeToo era might have been infuriating. But it’s such a wretched, inept piece of rabble-rousing that what it mostly demonstrates is how little you have to exert yourself, apparently, to get a rise out of viewers. Thelma and Louise looks sophisticated by comparison.

Cassie’s modus operandi is to make a spectacle of herself at bars until she gets a taker, generally a sympathetic-seeming boy-next-door type; in the opening scene it’s Jerry (Adam Brody) who offers her a ride home but detours to his conveniently-close apartment, where he jumps her.  Mulligan is so baldly over-the-top in these encounters that you can’t believe the guys don’t see she’s scamming them. But the kind of argument a movie like Promising Young Woman wants to make is dependent on our assuming from the outset what the movie’s supposed to prove to us and so not quarreling with the flaws in the reasoning. We all know that young men’s erections make them stupid, so of course they don’t notice that Cassie comes across like a bad actress, not a woman in peril. (Crash worked this way, too, counting on the liberal audience’s accepting the movie’s conclusion as a given so that the writer-director, Paul Haggis, didn’t have to bother constructing a plausible scenario.)

Let’s take a closer look at the plot. From the way Cassie scores her victories in her little black book, we assume she’s a lunatic exacting revenge on behalf of all women. But Fennell is careful to protect her protagonist: all Cassie ever does is behave extravagantly to make her points. The movie cuts away before she does anything to Jerry; you expect she must have killed him or castrated him, but it turns out she’s just embarrassed him. (Not very successfully, as it happens: he tells his drinking buddies all about it. Oh, I get it: horny guys are intractable. Then why does she bother? Oh, I see: her crusade is noble even if it can’t work. Fill in her your own explanation.) When she turns her attention to the people who wronged her friend, she takes one of them (Alison Brie) out for lunch, gets her drunk and possibly slips a date drug into her champagne, then turns her over to a young man she’s hired who is eyeing her from the bar. But all he does is put her in bed and hang around long enough to make her believe they slept together. When she visits the dean (Connie Britton) who refused to take Nina’s accusation seriously, she torments the woman by pretending she’s put her daughter in the kind of danger Nina was in at the med-school party, but the girl is, Cassie finally reveals, perfectly safe. When she shows up at the home of the lawyer (Alfred Molina) who got Nina’s rapist off, he’s so guilt-ridden after a career of defending degenerates that she calls off the assailant who’s waiting outside. To kill the lawyer? Maim him? We never find out because Cassie feels that he’s punished himself enough. What a sweetie.

You might wonder where Cassie gets the money to hire these guys, considering that, in her thirties, she still lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and holds down a job as a barista in a cheap café. But what Fennell wants us to focus on is that Cassie has given up her own life as a result of Nina’s tragedy – she dropped out of med school, she has only one friend (her boss), and God knows she doesn’t have a sex life – and all because another woman got raped and killed herself. This has to be the dumbest plot gimmick since the shrink played by Barbra Streisand in The Prince of Tides, unable to get a seriously troubled patient to talk to her, analyzed the patient’s brother (Nick Nolte). You might also notice that at this point that Promising Young Woman has stopped being a black comedy and become a (very shaky) psychological drama. That genre shift is confirmed when Cassie becomes involved with Ryan (played by Bo Burnham, who wrote Eighth Grade), who cares about her and manages – pretty easily, it seemed to me – to lower her guard. I won’t reveal what happens next except to say that Fennell throws out the drama in the twisty finale, which many people seem to think is terribly clever (including the Oscar voters, who nominated the movie for Best Original Screenplay in addition to Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress). Like everything else in the movie, it makes a point but it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Mulligan has never been a favorite of mine; I generally find her charmless, though she does have some affecting moments in The Dig. (It’s a lovely movie, though the performances of other members in the cast, especially Ralph Fiennes, Lily James and Ben Chaplin, offer more pleasure.) But except for the faux-drunk scenes in Promising Young Woman I have to give her some credit: she works hard to ground her scenes emotionally, and it’s not her fault that she can’t. Her line readings are very skillful. The ensemble includes several actors I’ve liked on television, like Connie Britton (Spin City, Friday Night Lights, Nashville), Chris Lowell (Life as We Know It, Veronica Mars), Max Greenfield (Veronica Mars) and Adam Brody (The O.C.), but their roles are caricatures. (Brody has a better part as a one-time child detective whose life fell apart when he couldn’t locate a missing friend in The Kid Detective, but unfortunately it’s not much of a movie.) I felt sorriest for Jennifer Coolidge as Cassie’s mother, who is such an idiot that, when Ryan, who’s a pediatrician, comes for dinner, she asks him if children have different anatomies than adults. Evidently Fennell doesn’t think that anyone on screen has to be believable. Fennell is an actor-turned-filmmaker who played Camilla Shand on the last two seasons of The Crown.  Surely she couldn’t have failed to notice what good writing does for an actor?

Rachel Brosnahan in I'm Your Woman.

It isn’t until the second hour of I’m Your Woman that I finally figured out what the hell the movie was about. Rachel Brosnahan plays Jean, whose criminal husband (Bill Heck) goes on the lam, leaving a friend she’s never met before, Cal (Arinzé Kene) to supervise her sudden relocation with her little boy, for their own safety. Cal warns her not to contact anyone or get to know her neighbors; when she’s befriended by one of them, the thugs who are trying to track down her husband show up and Cal has to move them again, this time to a cabin where his wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and father (Frankie Faison) are living. More danger, more violence. The point of the movie, which was co-written by the husband-and-wife team of Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz and directed by Hart, seems to be that women can survive even the most extreme circumstances if they’ve got each other. I didn’t buy a word of this picture either, beginning with Brosnahan’s performance. She co-produced it (along with Horowitz) so I assume she believed in it and probably thought that, after three seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it would show her range. I love watching her on Mrs. Maisel but since all of her mannerisms (especially the vocal ones) in I’m Your Woman are the same as the ones she uses on the TV series, you keep wondering what a nice, educated middle-class Jewish girl is doing married to a thief and killer. (You also wonder, since the movie never bothers to tell us, what happened to her family, with whom she has no contact and never even alludes to.) Brosnahan’s agent should have talked her out of this one.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.



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