Stream or skip? +2023

Available now on Netflix after landing on VOD services like Prime Video earlier this year, Emily the criminal is a notable point in Aubrey Plaza’s career. We probably first recognized her in Parks and Recreation or Scott pilgrim vs the world‘ raised an eyebrow Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (she was the voice!) realized she was a lot funnier than Dirty grandpa and Mike and Dave need wedding dates earned, watched in fascination as she explored darker, more complicated characters in indie dramas Ingrid goes west and black bearand finally got everyone’s attention thanks to her work The White Lotus Season 2. Now she’s in almost every shot of Emily the criminala micro-drama fueled by millennial disillusionment, and it’s not an eye-opener because we pretty much knew she could anchor a heavy ship like this – it’s more of an eye-candy and her best vehicle yet.

The essentials: An elderly white man interviews Emily (Plaza) for a job involving hospital record keeping. He says he didn’t do a background check and asks if she has anything on her criminal record. A DUI, she says, a juvenile mistake. Then he pulls out the background check, which contains a conviction for aggravated assault. Who caught whom in a lie? We can’t help but feel for Emily — he fibbed at first. Captured her with an ambiguous, humiliating, condescending show of force. She walks out, but gives him her opinion first. We’ll eventually learn that she doesn’t let anyone have the last word.

When did the robbery happen? Lately? A few years ago? Several years? Several it seems. The details are sketchy, but it seems her life has derailed. She lives in Los Angeles and works a groundbreaking “independent contractor” job delivering food for a catering company. She shares a small apartment with annoying roommates. She has $70,000 in student loan debt. In her sketch pad she draws portraits of people on the street – remnants of her artistic aspirations. Longtime friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) has a cameo at an advertising agency, and she makes vague promises to Emily to get her an interview in the design department. Emily and Liz are meeting up for a drink, and a drink will have them sniffing powder in the bathroom and peeling off the sidewalk.

A co-worker gives Emily a phone number—a connection for a gig that could make her $200 an hour. She follows the lead to a seedy warehouse, where she receives a fake ID and a stolen credit card. She buys a $2,000 TV at a big store, hands it over to the bosses, and gets cash in an envelope. One of the guys running this operation is Youcef (Theo Rossi) who is nice while his cousin and business partner is gruff and rude. Is that an attraction between Emily and Youcef? i would say so What can she do next? Take that burner phone, come back tomorrow and the payday is $2,000. This time she’s buying a BMW from a garage that looks, shall we say, not corporate. She has eight minutes to get out of there before they realize the credit card is fake and she can’t make it and the guy attacks her and she drives the BMW out of there and he tails her and he pulls her over and pepper sprays her guy and drives go and escape and throw an anxiety attack. But she got the job done. Like I said, she’s not someone who has the last word.

Photo: © Roadside Attractions/Courtesy Everett Collection

Which movies will it remind you of?: Except for a few moments of spiraling tension that reminds Good time or a Jeremy Saulnier film, it’s a taut character study about descent into darkness along the lines of Rebecca Hall in Christine or Robin Williams in One hour photo.

Notable performance: Plaza revels in the character’s moral ambiguities, and the vulnerability of her portrayal makes us follow her down a slippery slope of justification and just entitlement. Aside from a few typically destructive, deadpan comic lines, it’s her most traditionally dramatic role, and she co-acts it.

Memorable dialogue: “We’re sorry, how much Interest is added monthly?”

gender and skin: none.

Our opinion: Plaza and first-time feature writer/director John Patton Ford make a powerful team. Emily the criminal gives us a character who has tried and tried to play the game of capitalism and realized that the rules are rigged in the system’s favour. She’s working her way through the student loan scam, the unpaid internship scam, the gig economy scam, and the one strike and you’re scam scam, and it’s time she hit it back. Think about it: identity theft is less likely to hurt an individual and more likely to hurt a big bank (which can absorb many, many more relatively small financial hits). Emily finds it empowering to fight back. Your situation is such that we’re almost inclined to think that credit card fraud isn’t such a bad idea. It’s like Robin Hood robbing the rich and giving to the poor; it has the appeal of punk rock.

Of course, there’s also the question of that one punch to Emily. What exactly happened there? We are not privy to that. We also see their tendency to party hard and escalate situations rather than accept defeat. Everything indicates that she enjoys dodging the law and flirting with danger; This stuff lurks at the edge of Plaza’s performance (reminiscent of Bryan Cranston’s performance breaking Bad, but to a more succinct degree) and plays out in sequences of intense, dangerous, nerve-wracking suspense from which Emily rebounds with surprising what-don’t-kill-me-just-makes-more-energy. The film puts more emphasis on how late capitalism is disillusioning the American dream and producing reactionaries and criminals. It’s not a subtle statement, but it’s a powerful one in the hands of Ford and Plaza.

Our appeal: Stream it. Plaza is great here. I can’t wait to see what she does at Coppola’s megalopolis – and beyond.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more about his work below

Leave a Comment