Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut could easily make a case for being the best cast title of 2020. This ferocious black comedy about one woman’s quest for vengeance in the face of abject rape culture has a murderer’s row of talent. Every role, from its dominant leading performance by Carey Mulligan to the five-minute cameos, is inhabited by the perfect actor. It feels somewhat cheap to note how well chosen all of the men are in a film so thoroughly focused on a woman’s struggle, but it’s true: from perennial good guy Adam Brody as the potential one-night stand whose morals fly out the window in a heartbeat to the velvet-voiced villain of many a movie, Clancy Brown, as the quiet father whose stoic exterior betrays his growing impatience with Mulligan’s antics. And then there’s Bo Burnham.
The multi-talented actor-director-comedian who’s been hotly hyped by the industry since his teens doesn’t seem like he’d be the first choice for this story. His character, Ryan Cooper, enters the quaint café where Mulligan’s vengeful Cassie works, tall and gangly and quietly endearing. He flirts with the sardonic Cassie, a former classmate from med school days, and makes enough of an impression that even our hardened heroine, who’s on a one-woman mission to seek vengeance for the rape and death of her best friend, cannot help but warm to him. Burnham is handsome but in the way that the adorkable heroine’s best friend typically is—the guy who finally wins her heart after she’s been wooed and dumped by Channing Tatum. When Burnham enters the movie, it suddenly becomes a different story. Now, “Promising Young Woman” is a romantic comedy, and a damn good one at that.
The jarring tonal shifts of Fennell’s prickly script work in large part because Burnham is such a quietly dominant force that the viewer is swept along by the fantasy he promises. It goes against every fibre of the viewer’s being to want the “nice guy saves the day” happy-ever-after ending for Cassie, one where she drops her plans for revenge and lives a good life with a loving man. Indeed, the film is built on the premise that such things are a pathetic delusion. Still, like the best rom-com heroes, Burnham’s performance offers buoyancy for this dream of the audience. He’s the approachably handsome dude whose wisecracks don’t always land but his presence is forever welcome. Burnham would fit in perfectly as one of Lisa Simpson’s non-threatening boys. When he bursts into song in a pharmacy, performing goofily to the Paris Hilton song “Stars Are Blind,” he feels like the romantic hero of every Netflix comedy, the meme-friendly love interest whose boyish charm deliberately pushes back against the bros, the jocks, and the creeps. For a brief shining moment, it seems as though he’s the exception to the rule that Cassie has lived by throughout the film. All men, when given the chance, will happily hurt women. But not Ryan, right? #NotAllMen?