Promising Young Woman

Bo Burnham: Inside

13/06/21

Netflix

Bo Burnham is what you might call a polymath – a man of wide-ranging talents. He acts; he writes; he sings; he plays maddeningly catchy music. He’s extraordinary! He’s also been around for quite a while (he first started performing comedy as a teenager), but I, sadly, have only recently become aware of him. He’s the writer/director behind the bittersweet coming-of-age movie, Eighth Grade, which Bouquets and Brickbats awarded a well-deserved 4.8 stars in 2019. More recently, he submitted a perfectly-judged performance as Ryan in Promising Young Woman. And he has three comedy specials on Netflix, the latest of which is Inside.

Like everyone else in recent history, Burnham found himself trapped at home by the pandemic. Shortly before being locked down, he’d been afflicted by crippling bouts of stage fright. Also, he was about to turn thirty, and he needed to talk to somebody about that situation.

So he wrote, directed and performed a one-hour-twenty-seven-minute piece that all takes place in one room of his house. Of course he did. He’s a polymath.

It can sometimes be hard to write about comedy, but this show is particularly hard to pin down, because it careens frantically from one routine to the next, all of them stitched together by a stream of perceptive, oddly Beatle-ish songs, each one of which seizes on a particular subject and brilliantly eviscerates it. Whether he’s commenting on the all-pervasive overload of the internet, spoofing a children’s show where a sock puppet is revealed to be a submissive slave to his human counterpart, offering a commentary on the kind of fluff that masquerades as emotion on Instagram, or exposing the raging narcissism that lurks at the root of every comedian’s output, this is never less than fascinating. It’s wry, self-deprecating – and sometimes shocking. Occasionally it dares to stand on the very edge of a precipitous ledge, staring down into the abyss.

Comedy is subjective, of course, but – having watched this – I was prompted to catch up on his two previous Netflix specials and to note how his work – though always first rate – has matured over the eight years, from what. (2013), through Make Happy (2016) to Inside (2021). This latest piece represents him at the very peak of his powers. Where he will go next is debatable – there is some talk of him pursuing a movie career but, if that is the case, I hope he doesn’t give up on what he’s doing here.

Which is being brilliantly, irreverently funny. And if there’s something we all need right now, it’s more laughter.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Promising Young Woman

20/04/21

Now TV

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a remarkable debut, at once fresh, funny, terrifying and compelling. Starring Carey Mulligan, it tells the tale of Cassie, a med-school dropout with a mission. Cassie is thirty, but she still lives at home with her parents; she works part-time in a coffee shop and has no friends at all. Something calamitous happened back in her uni days, and Cassie wants revenge…

Except she doesn’t; not really. I keep reading that PYW is a ‘rape revenge movie,’ but Cassie doesn’t seem to want revenge at all. Instead, she confronts people with a metaphorical mirror, so that they can’t help but see how shitty their behaviour is. The ‘nice guys’ who approach her with dispiriting predictability when she pretends to be drunk and alone in nightclubs, offering to ‘help’ by getting her home; the girls who slut-shame their peers; the figures of authority who brush sexual attacks under the carpet – Cassie just wants them to acknowledge that they’re wrong. She wants to effect change.

This is a zippy, witty piece of writing, that often feels surprising, and Mulligan is on fine form here. She’s perfect for the role: one minute she’s all sweet vulnerability, the next a steely avenging angel. Writer/director Fennell makes important points about the way our whole society protects and enables those who perpetrate assault whilst punishing their victims, but the film never feels preachy or didactic; she has an admirable lightness of touch. The bubblegum shades and kitsch soundtrack give us hints of rom-com (the scene in the pharmacy, where Cassie and her new boyfriend, Ryan (Bo Burnham), dance to Paris Hilton’s Stars are Blind is a particular delight), but Fennell repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our feet and takes us to some unexpected places. The bold references to Charles Laughton’s classic Night of the Hunter, for example, work well to underscore the bleak reality the story unveils.

The violence, when it comes, is shocking in its understatement. There is no blood and gore here, but neither is there any let up – I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that what we witness is a deliberate, protracted act. It works though, and I applaud Fennell for eschewing the salacious prurience that often dominates such scenes (Paul Verhoeven’s Elle being a case in point, a movie spoiled for me by its focus on the very acts it claimed to rail against).

It’s easy to see why Promising Young Woman has made such a splash, and appears to be a real Oscar contender. If Fennell wins, it will be well-deserved.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield