An astute move sideways by Aubrey Plaza, Emily the Criminal gives her fans a bit of what they want alongside a good whack of something new.
She’s a producer of the film so it’s fair to say this is deliberate. Playing the sexy snark can’t go on for ever, and she’s been working this territory at least since 2007’s online TV series The Jeannie Tate Show (she was the petulant drug-dependent teenage step-daughter). In 2009, Parks and Recreation made her a star. Since then Plaza has been playing variations on that Parks and Rec character, cynic/slacker/ditz April Ludgate, in films like Safety Not Guaranteed, Life After Beth, Ingrid Goes West and Dirty Grandpa. But, perhaps sensing that there’s always someone else coming up who does resting bitch face better, and is ten years younger, 2020’s Black Bear and 2021’s Best Sellers saw Plaza step away from the vehicle. In Emily the Criminal she takes a bigger step.
It’s the story of a millennial out of her depth who doesn’t so much embrace criminality as is pushed towards it by societal pressures. When we meet Emily (Plaza) she’s trying to get a regular job, but her criminal record (which she initially tries to explain away as a mere drink-driving offence but is in fact aggravated assault) is blocking that avenue. So back to the McJob it is, delivering lunch to office workers all the while imploring her successful friend, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) to get her a proper job at the design/advertising outfit where she works.
Meanwhile, Emily is drowning under $70K of student debt and there seems no escape, until she gets involved in a one-off card-fraud scam. $200 for an hour’s work. Criminality smells like fresh air and so when Youcef (Theo Rossi), the guy running the scam, asks her if she’d like to earn $2,000 for a slightly more complex job, she’s in.
From here the other world recedes, though debut writer/director John Patton Ford drags us back to the zero-hours, endless-interning, internalising-the-man world of corporate bullshit often enough that we understand he’s inviting a “what’s a girl to do?” shrug.
Plaza keeps us onboard with a character embracing the dark side by playing Emily as vulnerable (it’s always been her strong suit) while Ford plays genre peekaboo. It looks initially like an addict story – woman tempted by easy hit, becomes hooked. Then becomes a weird superhero origin story – woman learns skills, becomes unbeatable. Then possibly a love story, as “work” and play get hopelessly intertwined. And then edges into heist-goes-wrong territory for its finale.
Which way is it going to ultimately resolve? Addict, superhero, romance and gangster stories tend to end in different ways. Fascinating as Emily is, this aspect of the film is what makes Emily the Criminal really gripping.
Ford’s writing is careful and clever, and it’s enhanced by his directorial sense of pace, no-nonsense, semi-documentary style of shooting and fluid, handheld camerawork that never calls attention to itself. With only 20 days to shoot the film, necessity dictated the look, and this way of shooting is also very forgiving of course, but Ford shows he has other strings to his bow as the movie edges into its final act and he reveals he can do it the trad way – establishing shots, camera up high and all that stuff.
Plaza must be in every shot and it’s entirely her film, but she’s surrounded with good people – Rossi as the scammer Youcef, Echikunwoke effective as her friend, Liz. Gina Gershon blurs on as Liz’s up-by-my-bootstraps boss. And standing out in a role that’s little more than a cipher is Jonathan Avigdori as Youcef’s more hard-nosed cousin.
Coming up: Francis Ford Coppola, no less, is currently shooting Megalopolis, which is intended as an epic crown on a legendary career. Adam Driver is in it, alongside Laurence Fishburne, Jon Voight and Aubrey Plaza. But which Aubrey are we going to get?
Emily the Criminal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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