Promising Young Woman: Carey Mulligan goes from worse to nurse in this black comedy thriller.
Somewhere, Joan Rivers is rolling in her grave. While on her way to becoming a household name in 1973, the comedian conceived the story of (and along with Agnes Gallin, co-scripted the teleplay for) a black comedy about a young meeskite (Stockard Channing) who undergoes plastic surgery after a car accident leaves her disfigured. Once the bandages are removed, the ugly duckling turned swan sets about getting even with all who mocked her. Have we seen The Girl Most Likely to…? I’ll bet the farm that Emerald Fennell, writer and director of Promising Young Woman, has a DVD copy in her collection.
Med School dropout Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) lives with her parents (a marginalized Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), and spends her weekends at local bars, ostensibly avenging the gang rape and next-day suicide of her best friend Nina. Cassie puts her own spin on To Catch a Predator by feigning intoxication just long enough to lure her prey to someplace private where she can confront them with a harrowing come-to-Jesus moment. How she can afford all the requisite fashion accoutrements on a barista’s salary is a question only a sloppy screenwriter can answer. On her way home from one such encounter, Cassie is ogled by — can you stand the freshness? — a trio of lascivious construction workers.
Enter Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former schoolmate who happens into the coffee shop. Cassie’s initial hesitation to date him soon thaws, but not before Ryan catches her in a bar, baiting her next creep. He assumes the action is an indication of indifference, and it’s up to Cassie to win back his good graces. Halfway though, Fennell subverts her own best intentions, jumping the rail and allowing her narrative to move in the direction of precisely what it purports to mock: a flimsy teen romcom complete with pizza parties, an impromptu dance at the pharmacy, meeting her parents, etc.
In the eyes of many, Cassie lacked credibility. She had a reputation for sleeping around, so people naturally interpreted her defense of Nina to be little more than crying wolf. All that changes when a video of the assault surfaces, right around the same time the main assailant is set to have his bachelor party. Rather than trying to put a fresh spin on Cassie’s stag party stripper getup, Fennell borrows a cup of inspiration from the cover of Blink-182’s Enema of the State, which featured adult film actress Janine Lindemulder in full naughty nurse regalia.
The cast of The Girl Most Likely to… reads like a who’s who of ‘70s small screen nobility: everyone from Ed Asner and Joe Flynn to Ruth McDevitt and Jim Backus. Fennell’s roster of nerdy victimizers (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Alfred Molina, Max Greenfield) is its contemporary equal. The main difference being, the TV cast rose to the occasion, whereas Fennell’s supporting celebrities do little more than move out of the path of driving force Mulligan. But actors don’t make movies; directors do. As good a performance as it is, I’m not sure Mulligan’s work is enough to cut through the repugnance to warrant a recommendation. Unpleasant as it may seem, there is no such thing as a bad genre — even rape-revenge, as evidenced by Coralie Fargeat’s over-the-top manual on payback, Revenge — only inattentive storytellers. For her debut feature, actress-turned-director Fennell came up with a superb ending and apparently worked backwards, handily proving the old adage: imitation is the sincerest form of failure. ●