In a year of such uncertainty, the 2021 Academy Awards are but one example of how the chaos of COVID-19 lockdown impacted the entertainment industry. By this point in the Oscar race, we typically have the acting categories sewn up, as we did last year when all four eventual winners predictably dominated the precursor awards. Right now, however, it’s all up in the air, and the surprise results of the Golden Globes only cemented that. Take the Best Supporting Actor category, wherein the competition is fiercely unpredictable despite a downturn in qualifying titles in the race. Daniel Kaluuya is a frontrunner for his turn in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” while figures like Sacha Baron Cohen (“Trial of the Chicago 7”), Chadwick Boseman (“Da 5 Bloods”), and Leslie Odom, Jr. (“One Night in Miami…”) follow. In a year when the Academy could be truly daring for once, it's been disheartening, but not especially surprising, to see one of 2020's most impressive supporting performances be utterly ignored, both by precursor awards and critics circles: Bo Burnham in “Promising Young Woman.”
Emerald Fennell's feature directorial debut could easily make a case for being the best cast title of 2020. This ferocious black comedy about one woman’s quest for vengeance in the face of abject rape culture has a murderer’s row of talent. Every role, from its dominant leading performance by Carey Mulligan to the five-minute cameos, is inhabited by the perfect actor. It feels somewhat cheap to note how well chosen all of the men are in a film so thoroughly focused on a woman’s struggle, but it’s true: from perennial good guy Adam Brody as the potential one-night stand whose morals fly out the window in a heartbeat to the velvet-voiced villain of many a movie, Clancy Brown, as the quiet father whose stoic exterior betrays his growing impatience with Mulligan’s antics. And then there’s Bo Burnham.
The multi-talented actor-director-comedian who’s been hotly hyped by the industry since his teens doesn’t seem like he’d be the first choice for this story. His character, Ryan Cooper, enters the quaint café where Mulligan’s vengeful Cassie works, tall and gangly and quietly endearing. He flirts with the sardonic Cassie, a former classmate from med school days, and makes enough of an impression that even our hardened heroine, who's on a one-woman mission to seek vengeance for the rape and death of her best friend, cannot help but warm to him. Burnham is handsome but in the way that the adorkable heroine's best friend typically is—the guy who finally wins her heart after she's been wooed and dumped by Channing Tatum. When Burnham enters the movie, it suddenly becomes a different story. Now, “Promising Young Woman” is a romantic comedy, and a damn good one at that.
The jarring tonal shifts of Fennell’s prickly script work in large part because Burnham is such a quietly dominant force that the viewer is swept along by the fantasy he promises. It goes against every fibre of the viewer’s being to want the “nice guy saves the day” happy-ever-after ending for Cassie, one where she drops her plans for revenge and lives a good life with a loving man. Indeed, the film is built on the premise that such things are a pathetic delusion. Still, like the best rom-com heroes, Burnham’s performance offers buoyancy for this dream of the audience. He’s the approachably handsome dude whose wisecracks don’t always land but his presence is forever welcome. Burnham would fit in perfectly as one of Lisa Simpson’s non-threatening boys. When he bursts into song in a pharmacy, performing goofily to the Paris Hilton song “Stars Are Blind,” he feels like the romantic hero of every Netflix comedy, the meme-friendly love interest whose boyish charm deliberately pushes back against the bros, the jocks, and the creeps. For a brief shining moment, it seems as though he’s the exception to the rule that Cassie has lived by throughout the film. All men, when given the chance, will happily hurt women. But not Ryan, right? #NotAllMen?
And then, in a horrifying flash, it all changes. That ideal boyfriend, the pediatrician with the perfect life who was ready to save Cassie, becomes just like every other man. When Cassie gets her hands on a video of the night that her late friend was gang-raped in college, the event that has inspired her hunt for revenge, she sees Ryan in the audience. The audience only hears Burnham's voice—so welcoming up until that point—laugh and join in on the spectacle of a woman's degradation. His tone is goading, not quite as shrilly cruel as his friends but still clearly one of mockery towards the victim. With the scales fallen from our eyes, the viewer suddenly looks back on nice guy Ryan’s shtick and sees the strings being pulled. The heartbreak we perceived when Ryan saw a seemingly blackout drunk Cassie being dragged out of a bar by an obviously shady guy morphs into something more insidious. Why didn’t he step in to help her when she clearly needed help? Why was he so smarmy about Cassie’s job? What was really going on when he “teased” her about her refusal to kiss him on a date? Ryan’s entire being comes into doubt, and the quiet shift of Burnham’s performance becomes startlingly insidious.
When confronted, Ryan falls back on all of the bad guy tactics that Cassie is painfully familiar with. He begs for forgiveness but instantly reverts to nastiness when it doesn't work. The boyish charm becomes sharper, more focused on hurt than seduction. The scary part is that those qualities are often near indistinguishable from one another. Burnham doesn’t suddenly turn into a villain. That’s not how rape culture works. Instead, Burnham is savvy enough to cling to restraint. In his hands, Ryan’s machinations feel unplanned but still practiced in a manner that hints at deeper troubles beyond his boyish exterior. It’s a familiar flipping of the switch: the man who genuinely believes he’s a good person until a glimmer of pushback instantly turns him into something more devious. It takes shockingly little change for Burnham’s performance to go from rom-com hero to bad guy, something that “Promising Young Woman” keenly emphasizes through its use of the genre’s tropes. Why did we, the viewer, so easily swallow his questionable behavior during those “happy” moments?
After Cassie is murdered by Al, the man who raped her friend, the police come to Ryan's office to ask him a few questions. Dressed in his white coat and surrounded by cutesy artwork by his young patients, the shield of the Nice Guy is at its most effective. Burnham's jaw tightens and his eyes shift around his desk as he lies about Cassie's mental state. Those seemingly spontaneous moments of seductive charm from before are revealed to be coldly calculating, with Ryan’s own wellbeing prized above all else. It’s a remarkable moment from Burnham, who has so wholly inhabited the part of the hero up until that point. When the curtain is fully pulled back to reveal that Ryan is yet another cog in the machine of rape culture, another culpable figure in a system that lets perpetrators move on with their lives with no consequences, it’s somehow simultaneously a painful shock and not at all surprising.
In the film’s climax, as Cassie gets her revenge from beyond the grave, Ryan watches on, receiving posthumous texts from his ex-girlfriend as his good friends are arrested for murder. Burnham plays the scene with a kind of restrained irritation that permeates the obvious shock on his face. He, like his friends, had no reason to assume that there'd be any consequences for their actions. The chances are there still won't be any, but the mere possibility of them proves to be a worrying burden for Ryan. Burnham drops the cutesy aw-shucks charm of his earliest scenes. There's no defensive charisma or practiced flirtation here. When the veil has been fully lifted, what is left behind is just another Nice Guy.
Burnham's performance is layered in its subtleties, devoid of the kind of shouty monologues or showstopping moments that make for great Oscar clips. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so soundly overlooked this season. Maybe the performance seems too horribly familiar to many people, that evolution from nice guy to Nice Guy that plenty of men deny while performing its duties. Burnham's performance is the cuckoo in the nest. How easy it is for a man watching "Promising Young Woman" to see themselves in Ryan, to believe that they're not like those other guys, only to be terrified by what is quietly revealed. What Burnham so keenly understands about Ryan, and what the film itself sharply conveys, is that "monsters" aren't easy to find in a crowd. They're not executing their evil plans in one room while the nice boys and romantic heroes sit in another and wait to save the day. As with Ryan, all too often they’re in the crowd laughing along, one of the guys even as they deny it.