Promising Young Woman: Mulligan is Great, the Film is Uneven



Written and directed by Emerald Fennell

Focus Features, 113 minutes, R (sexual situations, drug use, violence)





This one could be subtitled “How Cassie Lost Her Mojo.” On paper, Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) has it all. She’s brainy, quick-thinking, beautiful, and comes from a good family. So why is she a 30-year-old medical school dropout, living at home, with no partner, and working in a dead-end job as a barista?


Promising Young Woman tackles the serious social problem of spirited girls and young women hollowed out by trauma. In Cassie’s case, it’s not she who was victimized, rather her best friend Nina. We never meet Nina, but we know that something bad happened to her that so scarred Cassie that she chucked her promise and withdrew into a cynical shell. Her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) can’t crack that shell, and even her boss Gail (Laverne Cox), the closest thing she has to a friend, finds her perplexing. Nor do they know about her extracurricular activities. Cassie goes to clubs and bars, feigns extreme drunkenness, goes home with strange men, and scares the crap out of them when they discover she’s stone-cold sober and psycho-like menacing.  


From this we infer that Cassie fancies herself an avenging angel. Promising Young Woman deals with a he said/she said situation in which “she” isn’t believed. Not by a female law school dean (Connie Britton), not by men Cassie once considered friends, not by her female colleagues, and certainly not by the attorney (Alfred Molina) who eviscerated the victim and made her look like the little girl who cried wolf. Some of you might recognize the name Cassandra from Greek mythology. She was the Trojan prophetess whose curse was that she always told the truth, but no one believed her. Cassie has a tale to tell, but no one wants to hear it.


Maybe Cassie should do as another character (Molly Shannon) tells her to do: move on. When she meets the quirky, take-it-slow Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), she starts to do exactly that. But when she hears that Dr. Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) is getting married, things go very, very wrong. Cassandra morphs into Pandora and opens dangerous boxes filled with things that she would have been better off not knowing.


Mulligan was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Cassie. She didn’t win, but she certainly deserved to be considered. She strikes two contradictory chords. When she dons her nighttime warrior princess battle paints to haunt bars, she’s slutty and crazed; when she moves through the day, she is alluring and has just enough radiance peeking through that everyone wants to help her out of her rut. Maybe the real Cassie consists of both sides, but Mulligan keeps us guessing which part of her will prevail. Burnham also walks a thin line. In his case, we wonder if he’s an adorable goofball, or a man who is too good to be true. Promising Young Woman is essentially a two-person dance in which the rest of the cast contribute flesh-out-the-script cameos.


Would that the film matched its central performances. This is 35-year-year-old Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut and she has a good-but-not-great grasp on her task. Aspects of the story, central mystery, and lead performances are strong, but the total package is a neither fish nor fowl production that ultimately tantalizes but disappoints. I’m being literal about its essential lack of identity. You will see Promising Young Woman labeled as a feminist movie, a thriller, a drama, and a black comedy. It has dimensions of each, but let me ask this question. If you tried to make a mash of The Brave One, 9 to 5, Hard Candy, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, what would it look like? And what if I asked you to add elements of Thelma and Louise and Joker?


Promising Young Woman is too good to dismiss, but you’d have to stretch the definition to call it feminist, rachet the fear factor to label it a thriller, smooth out its tone for it to be a drama, and the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to laughter. I’d add that lord knows men have a lot to answer for, but I’m not convinced that replacing stereotypes against women with those directed against men is much more than polishing a different boilerplate.


Rob Weir






Dark Pasage a Lesser Appreciated Bogart-Bacall Film



Directed by Delmer Davies

Warner Brothers, 106 minutes, Not-rated (Pre-ratings system)

★★★ ½




Dark Passage is a film noir offering that’s better regarded now than it was in its day. It stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which you might assume would assure box office success. It might have been, had Bogart been more visible, but more on that in a moment.


Vincent Parry (Bogart) has just escaped from San Quentin, where he’s doing time for the murder of his wife. As he flees, he catches a ride with an affable man named Baker (Clifton Young), who is instantly suspicious of his passenger’s dirty clothing and soggy shoes. When a radio broadcast describes Parry–who we do not see–Parry knocks out Baker and desperately makes his way toward San Francisco. He catches a ride with Irene Jansen (Bacall), who knows exactly who Parry is but has followed his case and is convinced he is innocent. She helps him avoid a roadblock and takes him to her apartment, but Vincent won’t stay there until he is less recognizable, lest he put Irene in jeopardy. He sneaks out and is picked up by a cab driver (Tom D’Andrea), who also recognizes Parry but isn’t the sort to rat. In fact, he takes Parry to a plastic surgeon friend, Dr. Walter Cooley (Houseley Stevenson), who completely alters his looks. Parry hopes to hole up with an old friend, George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson), but finds George has been murdered.


He this returns to Irene’s apartment to finish recuperating. Irene has her reasons for helping–her father was falsely convicted–but mainly she’s a sassy, independent gal with a sometimes boyfriend named Bob, who she is decidedly not in love with. Keeping Parry hidden from Bob (Bruce Bennett) or her prying neighbor Madge Raft (Agnes Morehead) takes some serious fancy maneuvering, though the prodnose Madge suspects something fishy is going on and Vincent needs to avoid her as she once came on to him, was rebuffed, and she ended up testifying against him at his murder trial.


Irene plays nursemaid and we only see Bogart for the first time when his bandages come off. Dark Passage evolves into a mouse and several cats drama. The plot thickens when, the on-the-loose Vincent is the prime suspect in Fellsinger’s murder. This becomes a meandering mystery in which not everyone is who they appear to be. Is Vincent really a murderer, or was he–as he claims–framed? Watch and learn.


At the time, Bogart was considered a real heartthrob which, in retrospect, made it a bad gamble to think that his name alone would compensate for not seeing his mug for the first third of the picture. Today, Dark Passage seems innovative for its point-of-view shots, but maybe that's also because not many people continue to think of Bogie as devastatingly handsome. In many ways, it’s Morehead who steals the picture. She plays the role of the woman you want to hate. She is nosy, acidic, duplicitous, and ten kinds of nasty. Bacall is, as always, quick with a quip and magnetic. By 1947, everyone knew that she and Bogart were an item–they married two years earlier–and this was the third film they made together. Still, those expecting a storied on-screen romance would have been disappointed by Dark Passage, which is a much grittier movie.


There are aspects of the film that don’t hold up well. Stevenson’s role as Dr. Coley played much better in 1946 than it does 75 years later, though I suspect that even then Coley came off as more of a mad scientist than a surgeon. Young and Bennett are rather wooden and, though Young does what he could with the character of Baker, the script did him no favors. But the black and white film stock does for San Francisco what it would do for Tijuana 11 years later in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. In both cases, it’s the shadows that matter more than the light.


I won’t claim that Dark Passage is pathbreaking film noir like the masterful Touch of Evil, but it is an underappreciated and lesser-known effort that deserves a new look. I’d say it’s Humphrey Bogart as you’ve never seen him before, but it would be wrong of me to stoop that low!


Rob Weir


Can You Speak American? Don't Be So Sure!



By Josh Katz

Houghton Mifflin, 224 pages.





I have been asked if there is anything I wanted to do in my academic years that didn’t happen. Leaving aside the fact that anybody in any career could answer “yes” to that question, there is one very cool thing I wish I had done. I wish I had been a field researcher for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).


It’s no longer PC to quote Bill Cosby, but he once wryly observed that he never had any regret about not knowing lots of languages like cheek-by-jowl Europeans. The punchline: “I’m from Philadelphia, but I can speak Cleveland.” That’s a funny line, but it’s not a very accurate one. The reality is that where you live in America determines how you speak about, consider, and negotiate daily life. Want a long sandwich stuffed with vegetables and cold cuts? Is it a sub(marine), a grinder, a hero, a hoagie, or a po’(or) boy?


You might protest there is a difference between several of these; grinders and poor boys are usually hot sandwiches, for instance. Or not! It really depends on where you live. Want a milk- or ice cream-based drink to go with it? Do you order a milk shake, a malt(ed), a frappe, or a cabinet? The last of those is seldom used outside of Rhode Island and it is coffee-flavored–unless you’re in bordering parts of southern Massachusetts where you should specify the flavor. And don’t assume a frappe will have an egg in it, or that it won’t.


The DARE is a massive six volumes that were released over a 38-year period. Josh Katz’s Speaking American is a sampling in a compact 224 pages with maps and illustrations. It’s more of a coffee table book than a serious read, but it’s a delight nonetheless. It’s the kind of book that you and a friend or partner can read together on the sofa. Or is it a couch? Or a davenport? Maybe a divan. Furniture people will tell you those terms differ as well, but ignore them because whatever they say won’t wash in vast sections of the nation.


In the southcentral Pennsylvania of my youth, we used the term you’uns as a collective noun. In much of the South, it’s y’all; in sections of New York youse. But if you live in the greater Pittsburgh area it’s yins, which is almost never used anywhere else! What do you call the strip of vegetation that divides lanes of a highway? A median strip? A verge? A parkway? A lawn? Something else entirely? When you slip a pair of denim trousers, are they jeans, dungarees, chaps, overalls, or perhaps Levi’s in a non-copyrighted sense? Is a swirly frozen treat from a machine a creemee or soft serve? Do you ask for sprinkles or jimmies on it? And where do you keep the money for pay for it, in your wallet or your billfold? When your younger self wanted to raise Cain the night of October 30, did you call it Cabbage Night, Devil’s Night, or simply Mischief Night?


You get the picture. Cosby joked about it, but in many ways, speaking Philadelphia isn’t at all the same as speaking Cleveland, and it surely isn’t the same as speaking Birmingham, Houston, Little Rock, or San Francisco. And for heaven’s sake, never bring a casserole to a potluck in Minnesota; it’s a hotdish, thank you very much.


I’ve not even touched on the book’s discussion of pronunciations and accents. Sometimes it’s a wonder that Americans manage to talk with each other at all. Speaking American is, simply, a fun book. Grab a soda, pop, tonic, or (generic) coke and leaf through it. Or, if you’d rather, grab something alcoholic, if you can decide whether to purchase it at a packie, a beer barn, a party barn, a beverage barn, or a brew thru. Get good and soused, shit-faced, fried, blitzed, or tipsy and you can be outraged that the terms Katz identifies don’t match what you think. Whaddya want from 224 pages? You can always read all six volumes of the DARE, if you’d rather.


Rob Weir