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How ‘Promising Young Woman’ Weaponizes Hollywood’s Nice Guys

In their most famous roles, actors like Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Bo Burnham have been associated with charm, morality, and decency. But Emerald Fennell’s film is all about how, in real life, anyone can be a predator.

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While an electro-pop cover of “It’s Raining Men” plays early on in Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan with perfect bangs) walks down the street barefoot and in the same clothes she was wearing the night before, the sauce from a breakfast sandwich dripping all over her. At first, it looks like blood, but she wasn’t up all night killing anyone. Not quite: Cassie, a med-school dropout turned barista/vigilante, goes to clubs every weekend, feigns intoxication, and, naturally, attracts predators, only revealing herself when men are seconds away from taking advantage of what they think is a drunk woman who doesn’t know any better. Then she etches their names into a little notebook: She’s keeping track of every single one of them, a plot against the male gender she devised after her best friend was raped.

Across the street, construction workers—the kind of men you’d expect to harass a woman—whistle and shout at Cassie. Instead of firing back (my go-to response to being catcalled is the very creative “shut the fuck up”) or ignoring them, Cassie stares at them until they’re uncomfortable.

But the construction workers are a stark contrast to the rest of the men in Promising Young Woman, a group that includes Adam Brody (The O.C.), Sam Richardson (Veep), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), Max Greenfield (New Girl), Chris Lowell (GLOW), and Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade). These lovable, approachable, low-key internet boyfriends are famous enough that we’re familiar with them but not so famous that they can’t go to Trader Joe’s in peace; they’re not Brad Pitt or Timothée Chalamet. And in Promising Young Woman, they’ve been cast intentionally by casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve Season 2 showrunner and Camilla Bowles on The Crown). What all these actors have in common is their wholesome roots. Their previous roles make you feel at ease with their presence, even though in Promising Young Woman, you know that they’re bad or that they’re about to do something bad. Their performances in the film, which emulate their previous roles but with a sinister twist, perfectly capture the film’s message that anyone could be a predator, and anyone could be complicit.

“I wanted [Mulligan and the actors] to be able to face off with each other,” Fennell told the L.A. Times in January. “I want you to imagine yourself as the hero in a romantic comedy.” It’s slightly terrifying that casual sexual predators such as date rapists are so common that their behavior is something any actor can play without a script, but that’s exactly what Promising Young Woman is trying to point out: a romantic hero and a date rapist can be interchangeable.

Jerry, played by Brody, is the first man who attempts to take advantage of a seemingly wasted-beyond-comprehension Cassie. At first, it seems like Jerry will be the nice guy and get her home safely. Brody plays the role with the same earnestness and charm he had as Seth Cohen on The O.C. As he comforts Cassie and offers to take her home, I felt comforted and hopeful that he wouldn’t follow through with anything sexual, even though I knew it was coming. Yet the inevitable result is still shocking because of our pre-existing relationship with Brody, who was plastered on many a wall back in the early 2000s.

Promising Young Woman uses deception the same way nice guys like Jerry use their charm to trick women into thinking they’re safe around them. Pop music, neon lights, saturated pastels, and a vague setting with opulent lawns and cookie cutter houses creates a surrealist atmosphere with a Barbie aesthetic that’s intentionally contradictory to the film’s story and tone. But Fennell’s greatest deception is Bo Burnham. Burnham plays Ryan, a pediatric surgeon Cassie knows from med school and starts dating. Their relationship starts with a meet cute (she spits in his coffee), and develops against colorful, idyllic backdrops: they drink giant glasses of Coca-Cola with thick red straws at a ’50s-style diner and sing along to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in a pharmacy illuminated by pink lights.

Burnham’s work always has been reflective; slightly off-beat, but uplifting. People, particularly millennials, have had a relationship with him since they were young and since he was young, posting original songs on YouTube as an aspiring comedian. In 2018, his excellent directorial debut Eighth Grade reinforced (both through the film itself and his adorable press tour with the film’s teen star, Elsie Fisher) that he is a nice, caring person. But that’s a smoke screen in Promising Young Woman: When Cassie is finally comfortable in her relationship with Ryan, she finds out that Ryan was present during the rape of her friend that haunts her and drives her, and the relationship ends the way Cassie expected it would the day she spat in his coffee. There are no happy endings here.

GLOW’s Chris Lowell and Max Greenfield—who most know as the softie Schmidt from New Girl but who I know from a five-episode arc on ABC Family’s Golden Age masterpiece Greek—don’t appear until the film’s final act, but they make the most impact both because of what their characters do, and because of their performances. Greenfield is the most haunting of them all: He’s basically doing Schmidt if Schmidt didn’t have an empathetic cell in his body. Greenfield plays the role as if he is a character in the straight-forward romantic comedy the movie occasionally pretends that it is, or like he’s in one of The Hangover sequels.

Lowell, meanwhile, plays Alex much like he played Bash on GLOW, with a comforting familiarity. But as the actual worst guy in the film, Lowell has the toughest role. Alex is the man who raped Cassie’s best friend, Nina; he’s also a major part of the film’s climax. What makes Lowell’s performance so effective is his childlike energy, and the confidence in his innocence. Alex raped a woman, but justifies it by telling himself that it was just something that happened when they were young and drunk. Now, he’s grown and mature—in his eyes at least. He does not truly feel like he is guilty of anything—until he literally kills the person forcing him to actually face his actions.

Promising Young Woman is a visual feast that clashes (in a good way) with the harsh realities of being a woman. Every woman knows a nice guy who at some point revealed himself to not be so nice; a guy who they idealized the way we idealize Seth Cohen, Schmidt, Bash, and the sensitive director of Eighth Grade. These are the nice guys who are our friends, our partners, our family, our coworkers: the kind of men who we think we know until the moment we don’t. The kind of men in Promising Young Woman.

Carrie Wittmer is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with bylines in Vulture, Consequence of Sound, and Harper’s Bazaar. She tweets at @carriesnotscary.