PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

December 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The protagonist in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s (“Killing Eve”) feature film debut is a woman on a mission to avenge not just what happened to her friend, but also change the mentality of predatory men … one “nice guy” at a time. She is a #MeToo heat-seeking missile.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, and when we first see her, she appears to be nearing blackout mode while drinking alone on a bench inside a bar. Most people have hobbies like crochet or golf. Cassie’s hobby, or maybe mission is a better word, is to lure men, with the appearance of a drunken easy score, and then scare them straight into respecting boundaries. She’s a non-violent vigilante (as opposed to Beatrix Kiddo) for morality and respect towards women.

As the film progresses, we pick up bits about what traumatized her to this extent. It turns out her best friend Nina was victimized by a group of men from their law school class. See, Cassie is the titular ‘promising young woman’ whose career dreams were dashed over what happened to her friend. Now, Cassie works in a coffee shop with a supportive and wise-cracking friend Gail (Laverne Cox, “Orange is the New Black”), who knows nothing of Cassie’s hobby … and neither do Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) who can’t help but wonder what happened to their bright, ambitious daughter, and why she still lives at home with them.

Cassie’s mission gets momentarily de-railed when former classmate Ryan (an excellent Bo Burnham, THE BIG SICK) pops in to the coffee shop and awkwardly proclaims his long-time distant crush on her. The two are clumsy and believable together, and their relationship has more ups and downs than a pogo stick. For most movies, this would be enough to hold our attention, but not for ambitious filmmaker Fennell who has much more to offer. There is a cleverness to the presentation with four specific segments: a friend who didn’t believe her (Alison Brie), the law school dean who didn’t want to ruin a boy’s future (Connie Britton), a regretful defense attorney who took the money (Alfred Molina), and a bachelor party that gathers those who make up her nightmare.

Ms. Fennell is also an actor (and has a cameo in this one), and it’s clear she has a real feel for putting actors in the best position to maximize a scene. Of course, Ms. Mulligan is an outstanding actor on her own, but the actors benefit from Ms. Fennell’s work. Other supporting work is provided by Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, and Sam Richardson. The color palette is similar to an early Tim Burton movie, and in fact, Cassie’s home looks like a museum or possibly a middle-class Liberace setting.

There is a lot going on here, and some of it is quite uncomfortable – and sprinkled with dark humor in unexpected moments. Advice like “move on” and excuses like “we were kids” ring hollow to Cassie, who carries some guilt over what happened to Nina, and remains focused on attacking a system that enables inexcusable behavior. Ms. Mulligan embraces a character who possesses raw nerves and emotions she sometimes hides, while other times flashes in neon. This isn’t about a guy here or there who takes advantage, but rather a faulty system that protects these guys at the expense of victims. The ending is unusual and unexpected, and kudos to an exciting new filmmaker.

In theaters December 25, 2020

watch the trailer


THE BIG SICK (2017)

June 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who tend to avoid Hollywood Romantic Comedies honestly have nothing against them in theory (no really, it’s true). The problems with the genre stem from (years of) cringe-inducing clichés, story structure re-treads, and inane dialogue – all of which is usually accompanied by acting that comes across as significantly short of believable. So when a rom-com (like this one) hits the silver screen and it provides emotionally dramatic moments, organically generated laughter, and multiple characters that we genuinely care about … expect the accolades to start flowing.

Real life husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Emily Gordon have collaborated on the script; an autobiographical re-telling of the saga known as the beginning of their relationship. It’s a story that starts simply enough with a meet-cute in a Chicago comedy club where Pakistani-American Kumail is performing his stand-up routine (in between Uber-driving shifts), and Emily is in the audience firing off some mild heckling which progresses to flirting and then … well, activity that leads to both saying “this can’t happen again”.

Director Michael Showalter continues to prove that he doesn’t mind breaking the mold for relationship movies. Hello, My Name is Doris was one of last year’s more creative films in this genre, and now Showalter has taken another step forward with this true life script. Kumail plays himself, and rather than a larger-than-life presence, he comes across as exactly life size. Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan) plays Emily. The two actors are believable together (and apart) and allow us to buy in to them as a couple – and as not a couple. Their relationship shines a spotlight on religious and cultural challenges, and family pressures that those from a traditional Muslim family carry. For some, moving to the U.S. doesn’t override religious and cultural traditions such as arranged marriages and preferred professions. The script addresses this beautifully and without pulling punches – although some humor does help.

The supporting cast is excellent and plays a substantial role in the story, especially as Emily (Kazan) lay quite ill in the hospital. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play her parents, and deliver an emotional wallop, even while dealing with their own marital issues – one of which allows Romano and Kumail to bond a bit. Kumail’s parents are played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, while his brother is played by Adeel Akhtar. They each capture the shock and disappointment that follows when Kumail seems to choose Emily over the family. Since this is a rare multi-dimensional script where characters can’t just be labeled “boyfriend” or “best friend”, Kumail’s cohorts at the comedy club are played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, and David Alan Grier – each bringing more depth to the story.

Expect the best giraffe and 9/11 jokes you’ve likely ever heard, but mostly rejoice in the graceful balance between life and death, comedy found in daily life, and the real relationship struggles. It’s not even the first coma-centric romantic-comedy (While You Were Sleeping, 1995), but here, the human feelings on screen remind us that most decisions in life are complex, and we all make mistakes of the heart. Kumail is caught in “no man’s land” between family obligations and his own identity. Hopefully life hasn’t stuck you in Kumail’s spot – hanging out in the hospital waiting room with the parents of your ex as she lay comatose down the hall as you slowly come to realize that she’s the girl of your dreams (and your parents’ nightmare). It may not sound like the makings of a traditional rom-com, but that’s what makes it so exceptional.

watch the trailer: