Why ‘Promising Young Woman’ Belongs in the Comedy Category at the Golden Globes

Carey Mulligan stars as ‘Cassandra’ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

(Editor’s Note: As of December 22, 2020, the HFPA has moved Promising Young Woman from Comedy to Drama.)

This is a conversation better suited for a later date, after audiences have had the chance to watch Promising Young Woman and form their own opinions about it. But in this era of attention deficit via social media cycle, now is probably the best time to discuss the news that Emerald Fennell’s feature debut has been submitted to the Golden Globes for consideration as a comedy.

The announcement, first reported by Variety’s Clayton Davis Monday evening, was met with a mix of praise and derision. Many who have seen the movie (and a few who haven’t) started weighing in. Some called it a great decision and others decried it as laughable, foolish, or offensive. Our own editor, Scott Menzel, was among those who disagree with the category placement.

It would be easier to explain why this move makes sense if more viewers had already seen it. As that isn’t the case, we will be very careful to avoid spoilers. You can read this with the assurance that this article will not reveal any plot points that aren’t already part of the synopsis or trailer.

To talk about why Promising Young Woman works in the comedy category, we must first look at the Hollywood Foreign Press and the sliding scale with which they measure the genre. A general expectation is that comedies make us laugh. And not just an appreciative chuckle here and there. We want to literally laugh out loud as characters get themselves into and out of silly situations. To giggle as two beautiful people fall in love. And to wipe tears from our eyes as we repeat favorite one-liners.

But comedy is sometimes difficult to fully define because it is so subjective. Sure, a movie like Crazy Rich Asians is clearly full of jokes and sight gags and is best enjoyed with a crowd of revelers. And last year’s winner Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood leans into humor more than drama to tell its Hollywood fantasy revisionist tale.

From time to time, a film is submitted that raises eyebrows. Sometimes the HFPA votes to recategorize movies they deem to have been inappropriately campaigned, which could happen here. As others have pointed out, it happened last year when the Safdie Bros’ Uncut Gems was reclassified from comedy to drama and ultimately went unnominated. When Get Out was nominated as a comedy in 2017, Jordan Peele, who was not part of the decision, was quoted as saying, “What the movie is about is not funny.”

But going further back in Golden Globe history, the comedy category is full of examples of movies we have accepted as comedies, even if they aren’t uproariously funny. Take for instance such classics as Billy Wilder’s 1960 gem, The Apartment. There is the framework of a funny premise in a man climbing the career ladder by lending his apartment to corporate bigwigs for their extramarital affairs. But a thwarted suicide attempt, holiday depression, and other dramatic moments make this a less straightforward comedy than we might normally expect from the likes of Jack Lemmon.

And there are others too. The double bill of Patrick Swayze romances, Dirty Dancing and Ghost were both nominated as comedies and certainly have their funny moments. Yet they each deal with serious issues in serious ways. They are the kind of tear-jerking romances that leave the viewer in that strangely comforting happy/sad middle ground by the end.

But what does that have to do with Promising Young Woman, a film that does have a romantic subplot, but is certainly not a romantic comedy? Nor is it side-splitting slapstick, a farce, or even a satire. Fennell’s revenge flick is more straightforward and direct than almost any other film that has ever dealt with sexual trauma and its aftermath.

What makes it work, and why it is so correctly marketed as a dark comedy, is the masterful way in which Fennell weaves lighter, softer, brighter elements into tense and terrifying moments. “I was busy thinkin’ bout boys,” croons Charli XCX as the film opens with a jaunty tune that sets the tone for a fun and girly movie that quickly gives way to an introductory scene that is downright terrifying. Within just a few minutes, before we even know anyone’s name, Fennell begins the steady steamrolling of expectations. And for two hours, she shifts and flips tones and moods with such finesse that, by the end, we’ve experienced the entire range of human emotions to such devastating and satisfying levels that it’s hard to know exactly how to feel.

In further describing his social thriller/horror movie and its place in a comedy lineup, Jordan Peele also said, “I think the issue here is that the movie subverts the idea of all genres.”

Just as Peele used brilliant moments of well-timed humor and tension relief in his very pointed, necessary, and original story about racism, so too does Emerald Fennell play with genre and biting humor to tell this timely, direct, and brilliant story of female trauma, rage, and vengeance.

Perhaps the real debate isn’t over what qualifies as a comedy, but over the fact that drama and comedy are simultaneously too broad and too specific of terms to apply to so many films in our current climate. What might the celebration of motion pictures look like if we stopped reducing every movie to a genre? It would probably open viewers’ minds to a wealth of new experiences.

Promising Young Woman is distributed by Focus Features and will be in theaters on December 25.

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