British actress Carey Mulligan made a splash 11 years ago — and received her first, and only, Oscar nomination for Best Actress for the coming-of-age film “An Education.” She also won BAFTA and National Board of Review Awards as the teenage girl duped by Peter Sarsgaard’s playboy. In the last decade, she has done her share of prestige films (“Never Let Me Go,” “Mudbound”) but none of them has caught on like her subversive new black comedy “Promising Young Woman.”
Directed by “Killing Eve” season two showrunner Emerald Fennell, Mulligan gives a lethally deadpan performance as medical school dropout and avenging angel Cassie, who makes it her mission to prove how predatory men are by posing in various clubs as a girl who is too drunk to get home on her own. As these horny heels endeavor to be her knight in slimy armor by offering to see her home and then trying to get her into their beds, Cassie keeps score in a sinister diary in which she marks how many losers she has exposed. The pages are filled with strikes and strike-throughs, a pathetic record of how predictable heterosexual men really are.
There’s method to her madness. Cassie’s best friend and fellow medical student Nina was sexually assaulted at a party years ago and Cassie decides the day of reckoning has come for the young man (Chris Lowell) who raped her friend. But how will she find him, and his enablers, who believe that Nina invited unwanted attention by getting drunk at the party? She concocts a brilliantly devious scheme to track them down. Among the startled: the medical school dean (Connie Britton) who did not investigate the assault, and a fellow female student (Alison Brie) who did not speak out. In short, everybody saw it and did nothing. What choice does Cassie have except to make them all pay?
Mulligan is wickedly wonderful in the role, underplaying scenes with a mordant, self-deprecating humor that helped to convince the Los Angeles Film Critics Association to award her their Best Actress prize. Will Oscar follow suit? The academy likes bathos, let’s be frank. Call it scenery-chewing, schmacting, whatever you want. It takes a lot to get them to give an actress their top acting prize for a borderline comedy.
But Mulligan has a couple of things going for her. One: the #MeToo movement is still a hot topic. The villain here is not Roger Ailes of Fox News, the repulsive corporate creep of last year’s Oscar-winning “Bombshell.” He’s a handsome guy who could be admitted to any college fraternity or even be chosen as ABC’s “Bachelor.” Two: a recent New York Times interview with Mulligan exposed Hollywood’s systemic misogyny by calling out a Variety review of “Promising Young Woman” in which a critic intimated that the actress wasn’t attractive enough to be targeted by all those would-be Romeos.
What contemporary actress doesn’t feel for Mulligan now? One immediately thinks of the dark reign of critic John Simon, who regularly judged actresses by their looks, not their performances. See how little things have changed? A victory for Mulligan would be tables turned in more than one way.
Gold Derby experts currently give Mulligan 5/1 odds to win Best Actress. She’s in fourth place behind another Brit, Vanessa Kirby for the post-partum drama “Pieces of a Woman.” Academy members who remember that Mulligan was supposed to be the Next Big Thing after “An Education” are likely to give her another shot at the gold once they see the devilish glee she displays on screen and give her revenge against sexists within the industry and without.
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