Aubrey Plaza knows a thing or two about stealing. With her laser-like gaze and killer deadpan timing, she can say absolutely nothing and snap a scene smartly. With the right setup, their characters can memorably push the boundaries of acceptable behavior, mixing absurdity and menace in often dangerously unstable proportions. That’s what made her such a likable stalker on “Ingrid Goes West” and such a riotous naughty nun on “The Little Hours.” In “Happiest Season,” a merry Christmas comedy in which Plaza, a supporting actress, nonetheless positioned herself as a plausible, even preferable, romantic ideal, she pulled off perhaps her most stealthy cinematic theft.
Plaza doesn’t need to steal scenes in Emily the Criminal. She plays the title role, and almost every moment — starting with the one where Emily (not for the last time) storms out of a humiliating job interview — rightfully belongs to her. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker John Patton Ford, the film is both a gripping thriller and a poignant exploration of predatory capitalism, with a protagonist caught on a hellish Venn diagram of student loan debt, exploitative labor practices and… sheer bad luck. Emily has one hell of a sobbing story, although her natural discretion and lack of self-pity prevent it from sounding like it. She also has a felony assault conviction on her record, making it almost impossible for her to find steady work, let alone the $70,000 she owes for an uncompleted art degree.
Ford doesn’t immediately reveal the circumstances behind that assault conviction, and apart from a few details — Emily is from New Jersey and has the accent to prove it — he keeps her background pretty vague. He wants to keep us at a partial distance from Emily, suggesting something of her capacity for violence while keeping us firmly on her side. Not that it’s hard to empathize: Whatever happened in the past, she makes a good faith effort to bring her actions together in the present. Sharing a cramped LA apartment with two roommates, she just barely gets by doing food deliveries, an independent contractor job with predictably low wages, no benefits, and inflexible hours. A jet set college friend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) promises Emily forever a foothold in the door of an upscale ad agency, and dangles a bright future they both know will never come.
It’s one of Emily’s co-workers (Bernardo Badillo) who slips her a real opportunity, albeit an illegal one. A slick operator named Youcef (a very good Theo Rossi) sets the rules: as a “dummy shopper,” Emily goes into a big store and uses a fake credit card to buy some electronics, then slips out before the theft is discovered. The goods are picked up and resold, and she gets $200—not bad for an hour’s work. And Emily, to her surprise, concern, and excitement, is proving to be very good at this kind of work, in part because few people suspect her of doing it. One of the film’s more honest, if tacit, points is how a white woman can gain the benefit of the doubt — and even get ahead — in ways that Emily’s fellow buyers, including some black and Latino men, clearly don’t.
But whatever sociological Emily may represent, she is first and foremost a character of sustained and highly specific dramatic interest. One of the joys of Plaza’s performance is the way it shows us a person honing their fight-or-flight instincts in real-time and in increasingly dangerous transactional situations. We see Emily’s caution and ruthlessness when confronted by a suspicious car dealer or, in one particularly harrowing episode, a knife-wielding robber. We also enjoy her growing satisfaction as, with Youcef’s help, she launches her own racket, prints the credit cards, collects the goods and organizes the resale herself. All of this takes place in a series of almost palpably unsightly Los Angeles locations, filmed here with a restless run-and-gun immediacy. (Ford’s veteran collaborators include Jeff Bierman, who oversaw the film’s handheld cinematography, and Nathan Halpern, who composed the steadily vibrant score.)
It falls to Youcef, a Lebanese immigrant with his own unfortunate backstory, to bring the necessary whispers of romantic fatalism to this modern noir. Given the initially combative, increasingly sexy sparks that fly between him and Emily, this development is both unsurprising and far from unwelcome. However, when Emily and Youcef’s business arrangement becomes tangled in emotional complications, Ford’s intrigue loses some of its earlier tautness; The closing stages become looser and snappier, even as it pushes both characters to new levels of desperation. But while the film doesn’t quite work as a genre exercise, it stands on a more secure footing as a portrait of a woman who has learned to operate in perpetual survival mode.
It’s telling that even as her credit card fraud operation begins, Emily knows better than to back down or neglect her other sources of income. She keeps making her grocery deliveries and rushes on to this big interview, which allows Ford to throw in a few side points about the injustices of the gig economy and — in a scene that’s likely to elicit head nods — full-time unpaid internships. It’s not hard work that bothers Emily; it’s how little they and (broadly speaking) millions of Americans get for their hard work, thanks to social forces more cruel and immorally exploitative than the unlawful activities of any one individual. This may be the story of Emily the criminal, but Ford reserves his strongest indictment for the system that created it.
“Emily the Criminal”
Valuation: R, for language, some violence, and brief drug use
Duration: 1 hour 35 minutes
To play: Begins August 12 in general release
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-11/emily-the-criminal-review-aubrey-plaza-theo-rossi ‘Emily the Criminal’ review: Aubrey Plaza kills it