Promising Young Woman makes smart, devious use of Bo Burnham

·7 min read

This article contains major plot revelations from Promising Young Woman.

There’s no easy way to classify Promising Young Woman, the first feature written and directed by Emerald Fennell. The film, which premiered at Sundance in January and hit a handful of theaters on Christmas Day (talk about holiday counter-programming!), is certainly riffing on the rape-revenge genre... except that it doesn’t feature a lot of violence, which was pretty much the raison d’être of its grim, grimy ’70s and ’80s ancestors. You could call the movie a straight drama, but that wouldn’t account for its cotton-candy aesthetic and soundtrack of ironically deployed pop music. And categorizing it only as a black comedy would be a little misleading, too, given how straight Fennell plays many scenes. (Her script can be as serious as cancer. As unfunny, too.)

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In other words, Promising Young Woman is a shape shifter. And the most devious form it takes is that of a slick, mainstream romantic comedy—an unexpected love story for Cassie (Carey Mulligan), the film’s vengeful and trauma-hardened heroine. This subplot, nestled into the margins of the movie, operates perfectly well within the tapestry of competing genres Fennell weaves. It’s also a trap every bit as expertly sprung as the one Cassie lays out for the sexual predators she confronts. That it can dual-function that way has a lot to do with the actor Fennell casts in the role of the love interest: comedian, fellow filmmaker, and one-time YouTube star Bo Burnham.

Promising Young Woman is eye candy with a razor blade inside

Burnham plays Ryan Cooper, a pediatric surgeon who Cassie knew back in med school, before she dropped out in the wake of her friend’s sexual assault. The two reconnect by chance, in the film’s version of a salty-sweet meet-cute, at the coffee shop where Cassie works. Ryan is funny and self-deprecating. He unabashedly sings along to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in a pharmacy. He heals sick kids for a living. He is model boyfriend material. And when we look at him, we’re meant to see the opposite of the business bros Cassie ensnares after hours, pretending to be blackout drunk to expose their opportunistic indifference to consent. Ryan is “one of the good ones,” a gentleman. And for Cassie, he represents the possibility of forgiveness, a light at the end of the dark tunnel she’s been traveling through since college.

Fennell, though, has other ideas. (Final warning: spoilers ahead.) It’s when Cassie gets her hands on a video of the night her friend was raped in college that the filmmaker pulls the rug out from under her and the audience. Ryan, as it turns out, was there that night—a bystander, not just allowing the assault to continue but laughing about it, too. It’s with this revelation that Promising Young Woman detonates its expert imitation of a romantic comedy, taking with it the #NotAllMen defense those scenes appear to be mounting, at least by implication. In the world Fennell has built around her protagonist, there are no “nice guys” with clean hands. Even those who didn’t participate are complicit for their silence, their justifications, their refusal to intervene.

None of this would work without the right actor in the role of Ryan. And Fennell found him in a comedian whose charisma and persona she could exploit. “I knew early on that I should pretty much deliver what I am,” Burnham told The A.V. Club over Zoom a couple weeks ago when discussing the movie. As a performer, on stage, screen, or webcam, Burnham has always exuded a certain sensitivity. There’s a boyish quality to him, and even at a towering 6 feet, 5 inches tall, he comes across as nonthreatening. His work, too, has painted the picture of an enlightened artist: He satirizes his own privilege on “Straight White Male,” one of the songs performed in his Netflix comedy special Make Happy, and empathetically gives voice to the anxieties of tween girls in his terrific directorial debut, Eighth Grade. Whether a viewer is familiar with his career or not, Burnham does not come across as a frat boy. He’s the “safe” alternative to that kind of masculinity—which, of course, makes him a perfect choice to play someone who’s nice on the surface but has enabled abuse.

Burnham hasn’t exactly been cast against type in Promising Young Woman. The film doesn’t so much subvert his charms as deploy them to deceptive ends. For a while, we really could be watching a “normal” romantic comedy—the film vaguely resembles, during these early stretches, the dynamic of something like Trainwreck, with the comic in the Bill Hader role of a doctor who offers the possibility of a healthier new life for our heroine. (Of course, here said heroine would be hypothetically dropping her elaborate revenge plot, not cutting back on the partying.) “I definitely wasn’t working backwards in any of those scenes,” Burnham insists, explaining that he never felt the urge to tease or hint that Ryan is not necessarily the pure innocent he appears to be. “I very quickly understood what my thematic function in the film was, and didn’t think of it ever again. I’m not going to externalize this guy too much.”

Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman

Still, some viewers might get ahead of the reveal. Partially, that’s because it’s a slow-motion variation on the film’s opening scene, where a dude played by Adam Brody (another actor who can do the decent nice guy—and subvert the type—in his sleep) swoops in to “rescue” an apparently wasted Cassie at the club, only to reroute the Uber to his place. But there are also subtle red flags in Ryan’s behavior, too: However close to the chest Burnham plays the character’s culpability, Fennell provides some tells that he’s not quite a dream guy, from the way he occasionally condescends to Cassie’s job to how he guilt-trips her about refusing to kiss him after a couple dates. Promising Young Woman doesn’t go overboard with these little dents in his armor, but it does use them to issue an implied critique of rom-coms and the kind of behavior we often shrug off when it’s presented in the context of that genre. The critique wouldn’t come through as strongly without Burnham’s general sincerity. He’s so likable in the role that you can’t help but hope he one day gets to play the romantic lead in a movie that doesn’t reveal some damning truth about his character.

To Burnham, who calls this “definitely the most substantial part” he’s ever acted, Ryan’s occupation is telling. “In certain levels of surgeons, you have to have a switch that blocks things out,” he says—a way to remove yourself from what you’re doing in the operating room. Compartmentalizing is the key. And Ryan has compartmentalized a lot of what happened in medical school. “What if I had forgotten that something I had done when I was 19 was that horrible and that traumatic?” Burnham muses. “At a certain point, I don’t think Ryan remembers the big revelation, which is probably even more damning.” That’s part of what Promising Young Woman is really about: The way rape culture often allows the perpetrators (and witnesses like Ryan) to move on with their lives, as the victims keep coping. Burnham plays the character unburdened because he is: Until Cassie pulls up the video, “He genuinely believes he’s a good guy who has done nothing wrong in his life.”

To that end, maybe the real genius of the casting is that it may force some uncomfortable identification. It’s easy for men to tell themselves they have nothing in common with someone like Brock Turner. But plenty of men (including the kind who would sympathize with the message of a #MeToo-era rape-revenge movie) might be happy, at first, to see themselves in Ryan—in his disarming wit and aw-shucks amiability, in the general Bo Burnham qualities that tend to mark someone as a “nice guy” who “gets it.” “We want to draw this big line in the sand: Here are the monsters, and here are the good guys,” Burnham says. “But for things to get better, we have to wrestle with not just the most monstrous forms of that behavior but the more common forms, which in the example of this film, are shared by your brother and your father and maybe you, if you’re being honest with yourself.” In Promising Young Woman, the actor holds a 6-foot, 5-inch vanity mirror up to the audience. It might catch a lot of promising young men in its reflection.