Review: ‘Promising Young Woman,’ starring Carey Mulligan

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Promising Young Woman”

Directed by Emerald Fennell

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramedy film “Promising Young Woman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who dropped out of medical school because of a past trauma takes out her anger on unsuspecting people who are directly or indirectly related to this trauma.

Culture Audience: “Promising Young Woman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a dark comedic twist on revenge stories.

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in “Promising Young Woman” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features)

It would be easy to assume that “Promising You Woman” is an angry feminist film where a woman pretends to be very drunk at different nightclubs, entices predatory men into trying to take advantage of her sexually, and then humiliates them when she reveals that she’s not drunk and that she just wanted to expose how these supposedly “nice” guys aren’t so nice after all. That’s what happens for a great deal of the movie and what’s shown in the movie’s trailer. But “Promising Young Woman” is not what it first appears to be, just like the movie’s central character Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (played by Carey Mulligan), the smart but deeply troubled woman who’s hell-bent on a personal agenda for these potentially dangerous sexual games.

“Promising Young Woman” is the first feature film written and directed by Emerald Fennell, a multitalented entertainer who is also an actress. (Fennell portrays Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s “The Crown” series and has an uncredited cameo in “Promising Young Woman” as a makeup tutorial YouTuber.) The story of “Promising Young Woman” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city that could represent any middle-class American suburb. As the story unfolds, viewers find out that Cassie was a talented student in medical school at the fictional Forrest Union University, when she abruptly dropped out because of something traumatic that still haunts her.

When this story takes place, it’s been seven years since Cassie has dropped out of medical school. She turns 30 years old during the course of this story, but it seems as if she doesn’t want to celebrate this milestone birthday or even be reminded of it. That’s because her life is stuck in a rut. It’s implied that Cassie has issues affecting her mental health.

By day, she works in a small coffee shop that’s owned by her sassy boss Gail (played by Laverne Cox), who doesn’t judge Cassie (who’s a sarcastic loner), except in believing that Cassie should be more optimistic about love and dating. Cassie is an only child who still lives with her parents Susan (played by Jennifer Coolidge) and Stanley (played by Clancy Brown), who are worried about Cassie’s life being at a standstill.

Susan is more vocally upset over it than Stanley is, because on Cassie’s 30th birthday (which Cassie claims to have forgotten, but her parents haven’t), Susan yells at Cassie in a moment of anger: “You don’t have any boyfriends! You don’t have any friends!” Cassie’s favorite color is pink, and the way her bedroom is decorated indicates that a big part of herself doesn’t want to grow up.

Stanley is more compassionate and accepting than Susan is about their daughter. He refuses to say any harsh words to Cassie and tries to encourage her to be the best person she can be. However, for Cassie’s 30th birthday, her parents give her a pink suitcase, as a not-so-subtle way of telling her that they really would like her to move out and get her own place.

At night, Cassie has a secret life of going to nightclubs and pretending to be so drunk that she can barely stand or remember her name. A man at the nightclub usually approaches her, with the pretense of being a “gentleman” who will “take care of her,” and escorts her back to his place. He inevitably tries to have sex with Cassie, who will protest and say no, but he will persist and maybe start to remove some of her clothing. Cassie will then shock him by revealing that she’s not drunk at all and that he can’t have sex with her.

Depending on the situation, Cassie will usually humiliate the guy by letting him know that he almost raped her. He usually reacts with surprise over being caught, denial over being labeled as a sexual abuser, and almost always anger by accusing Cassie of “tricking” or “trapping” him. Cassie then goes home and records each incident in a journal, by checking off each encounter with hangman numerical symbols. (These numerical symbols are shown in pink coloring at pivotal points in the story.)

In the beginning of the movie, Cassie is seen playing this game in two separate incidents: First, it’s with a guy named Jerry (played by Adam Brody), who is egged on by the pals he’s with at the nightclub to take advantage of her. Cassie also plays this game with a cocaine-snorting nerdy creep named Neil (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who tries to blame his predatory actions on the cocaine.

Why is Cassie putting herself in these situations? She’s not an undercover cop trying to bust potential rapists. She’s acting out her own type of justice for something involving a sexual assault that happened when she was in medical school. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who was assaulted, what happened and who was responsible.

While Cassie is leading this double life, a customer comes into the coffee shop one day, and he changes Cassie’s outlook on possibly opening up her heart to romance. A former medical school classmate named Ryan (played by Bo Burnham), who is now a pediatric surgeon, is very surprised to see Cassie working in a coffee shop because he thought she would be doing something more prestigious with her life. Ryan immediately stammers and makes a profuse apology to Cassie when he realizes that he had a very condescending reaction to her job.

When Cassie asks him if he wants milk in his coffee, Ryan says, “You can spit in it. I deserve it.” Cassie obliges and spits in his coffee, which Ryan then drinks. It sets the tone for the rest of the relationship, where Ryan is awkward and eager to impress Cassie, while she is coolly sarcastic and hard to read about what she might be really feeling. Ryan tells Cassie that he’s had a crush on her since medical school. He asks her out on a date. She ignores his attempts to court her, until she says yes.

Cassie and Ryan’s budding romance has a dark cloud over it though. Cassie has become secretly consumed with the news that a former medical school classmate named Al Monroe is getting married. She finds out about the upcoming wedding on social media. Al Monroe’s name seems to trigger Cassie on a path that leads to her reliving the trauma she experienced in medical school.

Cassie had a best friend at the time named Nina Fisher, whom she knew since childhood, and they were like sisters to each other. Nina’s name is often brought up in the story in relation to Cassie’s experiences in medical school. Nina and Cassie had the type of friendship where people described Cassie and Nina as “inseparable.”

Some other people from Cassie’s past are in the story, including Madison McPhee (played by Alison Brie), who was a close friend of Cassie and Nina. All three of them were in medical school at the same university. Cassie also visits Nina’s mother Mrs. Fisher (played by Molly Shannon), Forrest Union University’s Dean Elizabeth Walker (played by Connie Britton) and an attorney named Jordan (played by Alfred Molina).

“Promising Young Woman” has moments of being a dramatic thriller (when it comes to Cassie’s nocturnal activities) and a romantic comedy (when it comes to Cassie and Ryan’s relationship), but it becomes clear as the story goes on that the overall tone of the story is a dark satire of how society often handles the complicated issues of sexual assault. The movie shows in realistic ways that women can be just as cruel as men when it comes to blaming and shaming victims of sexual assault.

It’s important to point that out because “Promising Young Woman” is not a man-bashing movie. Rather, the movie accurately shows how people can often blur the lines of what constitutes a sexual assault when intoxication from drugs or alcohol is involved in the incident. Was there consent given because inhibitions were lowered due to intoxication, or was consent taken away because someone wasn’t thinking clearly due to intoxication?

There’s also a culture of complicity and denial when someone accused of sexual assault has a certain “respectable” public image and is considered to be “too nice” to ever be the type of person who would commit this crime. At the same time, in most countries, the law is to consider someone innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. At what point should an accused person be judged by public opinion when that person hasn’t been arrested or convicted of the crime? There are no easy answers in many cases.

And what about people who witness a crime but do nothing about it? How guilty are they and how harshly should they be judged? Those are questions that will make this movie’s viewers think about all the past and present actions of certain characters, as “Promising Young Woman” reveals more of Cassie’s background and how it’s linked to certain people in the story.

“Promising Young Woman” has some interesting soundtrack music choices that successfully demonstrate the dichotomous lifestyle and mindset of Cassie. Two dance-pop songs in particular are put to great use in separate scenes. Britney Spears’ 2003 hit “Toxic” is heard when Cassie goes on the prowl in a pivotal part of the movie. Paris Hilton’s 2006 hit “Stars Are Blind” is heard when Cassie and Ryan playfully stroll through a drugstore and act like teenagers as they sing along to the song when it’s playing over the drugstore loudspeakers.

“Toxic” and “Stars Are Blind” are clever song choices, because of the pop culture context and how it relates to Cassie’s character. Spears and Hilton, who used to be close friends, had “party girl” images when these songs were released. (Spears had her notorious meltdown a few years after “Toxic” was a hit.) Both songs were released during Cassie’s teenage years, when Spears and Hilton probably would’ve made big impressions on Cassie and Nina, who was Cassie’s best friend from childhood.

“Stars Are Blind” and “Toxic” at first seem to be lightweight pop songs, but the lyrics have deeper meaning in the context of this story. As the public now knows, the fun-loving party image presented by Hilton and Spears during their tabloid heyday masked deep-seated emotional problems. It would be easy to speculate that these songs also represent the turbulent emotional journey that Cassie has been on too. She might have imagined as a teenager when these songs were hits that she would also be a fun-loving party girl in her 20s, but her carefree spirit was shattered and she’s been left with disillusionment and broken dreams.

Mulligan gives a memorable and effective performance as Cassie, who doesn’t see herself as a heroine as much as an emotionally damaged crusader. Burnham also shows a certain nuance in his role as the “nice guy” who’s able to thaw Cassie’s cynical heart. The story unfolds in layers, and there are some unexpected twists that upend the usual expectations that viewers might have for movies that cover issues related to sexual assault.

The fact that “Promising Young Woman” is bold enough to approach the subject matter in a satirical tone without making it an offensive mockery of sexual assault is an unusual and tricky feat. Is it an empowering feminist film? Is it too dark to be enjoyable, or is it too comical to be taken seriously? The best thing about the movie is that regardless of how it’s interpreted, it will make an unforgettable impact on people who watch it.

Focus Features released “Promising Young Woman” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2020. The movie is set for release on VOD on January 15, 2021; on digital on March 2, 2021; and on Blu-ray and DVD on March 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Like a Boss,’ starring Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne and Salma Hayek

January 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne and Salma Hayek in "Like a Boss"
Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne and Salma Hayek in “Like a Boss” (Photo by Eli Joshua Ade/Paramount Pictures)

“Like a Boss”

Directed by Miguel Arteta

Culture Representation: Taking place in Atlanta and centered on the beauty industry, the comedy “Like a Boss” has a racially diverse cast that includes representation of white people, African Americans, Latinos and Asians in the middle and upper classes.

Culture Clash: Pandering to the worst stereotypes of women, the plot of “Like a Boss” is basically about a corporate catfight.

Culture Audience: “Like a Boss” will appeal primarily to people who like mindless comedies that sink to low and crude levels.

Tiffany Haddish, Salma Hayek and Rose Byrne in “Like a Boss” (Photo by Eli Joshua Ade/Paramount Pictures)

If you were someone who sat through the excruciatingly dumb trailer of “Like a Boss” as it played during previews of a movie you saw in a theater, you might have seen from the repulsed reactions of people in the audience that this movie was not only a turn-off but it was also going to be a flop. “Like a Boss” tries to pass itself off as a raunchy feminist film, but in the end, the movie (written and directed by men) treats women like trash by presenting them as clueless about business and being at their cruelest to other women. “Like a Boss” director Miguel Arteta and screenwriters Adam Cole-Kelly and Sam Pitman should be embarrassed about putting this crap into the world, because it shows how inept they are at making a female-centric comedy.

The plot centers on entrepreneurs Mel Paige (played by Rose Byrne) and Mia Carter (played by Tiffany Haddish), two best friends since childhood who have an Atlanta store that sells their own brand of beauty products called M&M. Mel handles the financial matters of the business, while Mia handles the creative aspects. On the surface, things seem to be going well, but Mel is hiding a secret that she eventually confesses to Mia: their company is $493,000 in debt. (This isn’t a spoiler, since the confession is in the movie’s trailers. And if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve basically seen what could be called the best parts of this bad movie.) It doesn’t help the company’s finances that Mia likes to give deep discounts to customers for random reasons.

However, M&M is making enough sales to attract the attention of corporate shark Claire Luna (played by Salma Hayek), the owner of the successful  beauty corporation Ovieda that’s supposed to be a market leader. The writers of this movie clearly don’t know that the biggest U.S.-based beauty companies in America are actually headquartered in New York or Los Angeles, but maybe the filmmakers got financial incentives from Atlanta to have this cheap-looking movie take place there.

Claire swoops in to make an offer to buy 51% of M&M and pay off all the company’s debts. Mel wants to do the deal, but Mia is reluctant because it would break Mel and Mia’s pact to never sell the business. Mia, who is more street-smart than Mel, also senses that Claire can’t be trusted. However, Mel is desperate to erase the company’s debts, and argues with Mia that the sale would be good for the company.

After Claire observes the tension that the proposed deal is causing between the two longtime friends, Claire offers to buy 49% of the company on the condition that if either Mel or Mia leaves the company, Claire will get 51% ownership of the business. Of course, in a movie as stupid and unrealistic as this one, not only do Mel and Mia cave in to Claire’s demands that they make their decision in one day, but they also sign the deal in Claire’s office without any attorneys involved.

As a further insult to women, the screenwriters came up with the catty motivation that Claire targeted Mel and Mia for a takeover because she’s jealous of their close friendship and wants the deal to break up Mel and Mia. It turns out that Claire started Ovieda with her longtime best friend, whom Claire ended up firing because Claire is basically a greedy you-know-what. Claire wants to split up Mel and Mia because Claire failed at working with her best friend, so Claire can’t stand to see two female best friends work well together as business partners. In other words, Claire isn’t thinking like a real business person but is thinking like a petty high schooler. If this corporate raider were a man, there’s no way the filmmakers would come up with this moronic motivation to take over a company.

But the cattiness doesn’t stop there in “Like a Boss.” Mel and Mia have a circle of bourgeois “frenemies”—Kim, Jill and Angela (played by Jessica St. Clair, Natasha Rothwell and Ari Graynor)—mostly married mothers who apparently look down on the unmarried and childless Mel and Mia, who still live like college students. Mel and Mia are roommates who regularly smoke pot and have meaningless flings with boy toys. Meanwhile, Mel and Mia are convinced that their own lifestyles are better than their domesticated friends because Mel and Mia don’t have the responsibilities of husbands and children. Mel and Mia and their “Real Housewives”-type friends spend almost all of their scenes together trying to outdo and impress each other instead of genuinely having fun together as real friends do.

There’s also an unnecessary subplot where Claire pits Mia and Mel against two sexist men named Greg (played by Ryan Hansen) and Ron (played by Jimmy O. Yang), who have their own beauty company that’s competing with M&M for the millions being offered by Claire in the acquisition deal. Greg and Ron are portrayed as dorks who think they’re “woke,” but they’re really dismissive of their customers’ needs. They see beauty products as a way to exploit customers’ insecurities about their looks instead of enhancing natural beauty, and so their company uses a lot of cringeworthy marketing techniques that reflect this condescending attitude.

“Like a Boss” is polluted with some not-very-funny slapstick moments and an annoying fixation on telling jokes about women’s private parts every 10 minutes. There are cheesy Lifetime movies that are better than “Like a Boss,” which certainly isn’t worth spending any money to see. Byrne is capable of doing better work in comedies (as evidenced by “Bridesmaids” and “Neighbors”), but in “Like a Boss,” her Mel character is such a one-dimensional, uptight neurotic that there’s no room for any nuanced complexities.

Haddish continues to put herself in Typecast Hell as the foul-mouthed, quick-tempered, loud caricature that she keeps doing in every movie she’s done since her breakout in 2017’s “Girls Trip,” which is still her best film. Even though her Mia character in “Like a Boss” is college-educated, Mia is an unsophisticated mess. Unfortunately, there are many people in this world who have little or no contact with black women, and they get their ideas and stereotypes of black women from what they see on screen. Fortunately, we have versatile and intelligent actresses like Viola Davis, Regina King and Lupita Nyong’o to offset the damaging, negative stereotypes of black women that Haddish continues to perpetuate in her choice of roles.

“Like a Boss” also has some Hispanic racial stereotyping, since Claire makes Mel and Mia do some salsa-like dance moves with her in the office while Mexican music suddenly plays in the background. (Hayek is Mexican, in case you didn’t know.) There’s also a running gag that Claire can’t speak proper English because she’s constantly mispronouncing and fabricating English words. The not-so-subtle message the filmmakers are conveying is that Latino immigrants who are successful in American business still aren’t smart enough to master the English language. Just because “Like a Boss” director Arteta is also Latino doesn’t excuse this awful stereotyping.

Meanwhile, Hayek and Billy Porter (who plays the sassy Barrett, an openly gay employee of Mel and Mia) have the talent to be doing Oscar-caliber work. Instead, they are slumming it in this garbage movie. Supporting characters that could have been interesting are instead poorly written knock-offs that have been seen countless times before in other movies. Jennifer Coolidge plays the ditzy blonde (Sydney, an employee of Mel and Mia), while Karan Soni plays the villain’s smarmy lackey (Josh, who is Claire’s assistant).

“Like a Boss” is supposed to be a comedy about female empowerment in corporate America, but instead this movie has a very ghetto, misogynistic mindset that belongs in the same trash pile as a bunch of toxic and outdated cosmetics products.

Paramount Pictures released “Like a Boss” in U.S. cinemas on January 10, 2020.