Year:  2021

Director:  John Patton Ford

Rated:  MA

Release:  September 21, 2022

Running time: 95 minutes

Worth: $18.00
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Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Bernardo Badilo, Jonathan Avigdori, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon

Aubrey Plaza is extraordinary …

When we meet the titular Emily (Aubrey Plaza), she is already a criminal. She’s sitting in an interview for a job as a receptionist in a medical clinic. The interviewer brings up a conviction for a DUI and Emily explains that she was young and not as intoxicated as her friends, but she got caught. In a gotcha moment, the interviewer reveals that he also has information about an assault charge and would Emily care to explain that? The answer is a resounding no and Emily storms out of the interview seething with fury.

Seething with fury would be the best way to describe writer/director John Patton Ford’s debut feature, which Plaza produced. It’s an indictment of contemporary America that explores everything from the crippling nature of student debt, the gig economy, to the impossible idea that someone can live on no money for an “internship.”

Emily lives in Los Angeles, but she comes from New Jersey. She attended an expensive art college and despite the fact that she was unable to graduate, she’s saddled with so much debt that her payments aren’t even making a dent in the interest. Barred by her criminal past to get “real jobs”, she is forced to work as a food delivery person eking out less than minimum wage as she hauls food to expensive corporate clients.

A co-worker (Bernardo Badilo) gives her the number of an operation that can pay her $200 for an hour’s work. She enters the world of dummy shopping, a kind of credit card fraud that is run by Lebanese immigrant, Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousin Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). Youcef is a calming presence – he lets his new recruits know that they will be doing something illegal, but it won’t actually hurt anyone. He gives them the opportunity to leave without judgement. Emily wants to leave but the promise of fast cash keeps her there. Completing her first successful scam, she is noticed by Youcef who provides her with the opportunity to make $2000 in her next outing where the stakes will be higher.

Emily rationalises her new career in fraud as only temporary. Once she has the money to pay off her debts, she can start a career as a graphic artist. Such a career is dangled in front of her by her well-meaning but utterly tone-deaf high school friend, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Liz complains to Emily that she’s being sent overseas for her job, but it’s only for eleven days. The bright horizons promised to Emily by her education are impossible to achieve when she can’t manage to finish her degree. Liz is one of the few who made it in a generation filled with people who are over-educated and underemployed.

Emily takes to her life of crime; she also takes to Youcef. He mentors her and teaches her how to make her own credit cards and pass on the goods acquired. Their attraction to each other is palpable. Inside Patton Ford’s tightly wound thriller is an effective love story wherein two people who dream of just making it somehow find each other. “You’re a bad influence” one of them says to the other.

Plaza credits the Safdie brothers’ Good Time as an influence on Emily the Criminal. Indeed, the anxiety-ridden nature of Patton Ford’s filmmaking mirrors that of the brothers, but Patton Ford’s film is a less flashy version. Plaza’s Emily is an antiheroine that the audience can’t help root for even when she reveals a far less empathetic version of herself.

Aubrey Plaza is extraordinary as Emily. Plaza has long since moved beyond her beginnings as a comic performer and has proven that she has a dazzling range. She is not afraid to go dark as she did in both The Black Bear and her previously most feted dramatic role in Ingrid Goes West. As Emily, Plaza’s deadpan persona barely disguises mountains of rage. It’s too early to call her role in this film a career best, but it displays Plaza’s immense talent. Theo Rossi as Youcef is on par with Plaza. They exude a natural chemistry and sympathy that make them relatable avatars of a broken American dream.

Emily the Criminal is a perfect encapsulation of Roger Ebert’s famous maxim about movies being empathy machines. It’s impossible not to want Emily to triumph somehow and the murkiness of her morality may give one pause, but it doesn’t alienate the audience from her character. Emily has the right to subvert the legal (but morally bankrupt) systems that have driven her to a life of crime. America produces browbeaten people who cannot escape debt and alienation for reasons beyond their control. The idea that poverty is a moral failure is pervasive in the so-called Land of Opportunities, and Emily the Criminal asks the audience to consider that it is unchecked capitalism that is the real enemy and with that being the case can anyone blame those that indignantly throw off the yoke?


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