Emily the Criminal
2022, R, 93 min. Directed by John Patton Ford. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Jonathan Avigdori, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Bernardo Badillo, Gina Gershon.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Aug. 12, 2022
There are few things as satisfying as watching Aubrey Plaza go off on a potential employer during a job interview. This happens twice in Emily the Criminal, and those scenes offer a catharsis for anyone who has had to endure the string of banal queries meant to assess labor potential. In the first one, the opening scene of John Patton Ford’s directorial debut, she withholds a felony conviction, and ends up being removed from the premises. There’s an anger, a frustration driving Plaza’s Emily, a woman saddled with 70 grand in student debt for an art degree she never completed. Working as an “independent contractor” for a food catering company, she spends her shifts delivering mass lunches to faceless office park companies, the employees hovering like jackals in business attire as Emily arranges trays of food. Everyone’s existential dread is palpable: Emily’s, the office workers’, but especially Ford’s, who renders these scenes with clear disdain. When a co-worker gives her a contact for some extra cash, Emily begins her adventure into black market capitalism.
Emily the Criminal moves then from the cul-de-sacs of dead-end employment to the increasingly treacherous world of credit card fraud, a world introduced to her by Youcef (Rossi, who ever since his epically tragic run as Juice in Sons of Anarchy has the “cluelessly forlorn” thing down pat). Emily catches on quite quickly, going from buying big-ticket items with the stolen credit cards provided to manufacturing the cards herself. When her criminal enterprises inevitably lead to violence, Emily channels her hostility into a committed determination, unafraid of the wet work.
That Emily’s anger is not parsed out or explained by some traumatic origin story is one of the pleasant surprises in this neorealist crime drama. A narrative thread involving her more successful childhood friend Liz (Echikunwoke) attempting to place Emily into the ad agency that employs her (as an intern, of course) further cements the bitterness that surrounds her. A bitterness many of us are well acquainted with. And while turning to a life of crime to get out of debt isn’t the most original concept, Ford’s decision to keep his camera on Emily’s face for most of the film elevates the material, for Plaza’s performance is the draw here. Her Emily is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, and there’s a steely, unapologetic gaze in those huge brown eyes of hers. Plaza’s trademark twinkle remains, here cast with a crimson hue.