Playing at Cinema Center this weekend, Emily the Criminal is both a stunning debut for writer/director John Patton Ford and another outstanding showing for Aubrey Plaza in a more serious role.
Plaza is still likely best known as the sardonic April Ludgate from the NBC comedy series Parks and Recreation, but with impressive dramatic turns in Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear, Plaza continues to make a name for herself as an acting force with which to be reckoned. As April, her deadpan delivery of droll downers served as a counterpoint to the altruistic nature of indefatigable series lead Leslie Knope. Here in the title role, her straightforward language is much more cutting and chilling within the context of a crime thriller.
Our introduction to Emily sets up her desperate situation, as she winces her way through a job interview where the employer ambushes her with a background check revealing DUI and assault charges from her past. She’s $70,000 in art school debt, which she’s hardly making a dent in with a food service job, so she takes a tip from her co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) to join a service where one can make $200 an hour. She meets Youcef (Theo Rossi), one of the heads of the operation that uses fake credit cards given to “dummy shoppers” to make fraudulent in-store purchases. After Emily successfully rips a flatscreen TV, Youcef offers her a bigger job with a more lucrative payout, but with a higher risk, forcing Emily to consider how far down the criminal rabbit hole she’s willing to go.
A subplot involving Emily’s friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) trying to secure her an interview at the ad agency where she works underscores one of Emily the Criminal’s most potent themes about the decline of upward mobility. When Emily meets with Liz’s boss Alice (Gina Gershon) for a sit-down, she’s ambushed once again by finding out that the potential graphic design position is, in fact, an unpaid internship. Emily understandably replies that she can’t afford to work for free, causing Alice to refer to her as “spoiled” (stopping just short at “entitled,” a descriptor many a millennial abhor) for turning her nose up at the opportunity. The film doesn’t excuse a criminal lifestyle, but it helps us understand why struggling individuals would turn to such measures in order to survive when more moral means don’t pay the bills.
This subtext enriches what is already a stellar crime tale and character study set up by Ford’s incisive script and instinctual direction. His insight into the mechanics of L.A.’s underbelly recalls the work of Michael Mann and Dan Gilroy, where situations can escalate beyond our protagonists’ expectations in no time flat. A cross-coast import from New Jersey, Emily is street smart and certainly knows how to hold her own, but she still has tough lessons to learn along the way as she navigates this treacherous world. We’re proud of Emily for learning how to defend herself and not let others take advantage of her, even if the sometimes savage methods that she employs are lifted directly from dangerous people for whom we have little sympathy.
Ultimately, Emily the Criminal is not only a story of self-discovery, but also how finding one’s true purpose can happen later in life. In a scene when Emily waits for Youcef in his cramped office with flickering lights, he makes a self-deprecating comment about his surroundings and Emily non-rhetorically says, “It’s only temporary, right?”
The film’s title is deceptively straight-forward, but a conversation between Emily and Youcef’s mother brings forth a meaning that fully reveals itself by the time the end credits roll. Yet another read on “Emily the criminal” is how interviewers and society choose to easily write her off and compartmentalize her identity. Laced with potent social commentary that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, Emily the Criminal is an enthralling crime drama with a live wire performance by Plaza.
More new movies coming this weekend
Playing only in theaters is The Woman King, a historical epic starring Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu centering around an all-female group of warriors during the 19th century in the West African kingdom of Dahomey.
Also coming to theaters is Pearl, a slasher prequel starring Mia Goth and David Corenswet that rewinds back to the first World War to fill in the origin story of the titular villain who was introduced in 2022’s X.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Goodnight Mommy, a horror remake starring Naomi Watts and Cameron Crovetti about twin brothers who arrive at their mother’s house and begin to suspect that something isn’t right.