“Emily the Criminal” works best as time capsule fodder.
Aubrey Plaza plays a down-on-her-luck soul saddled with college debt and one terrible mistake. Her plan? Break both the law and common sense to get ahead.
The film doubles as a critique of modern capitalism, suggesting the current system is “rigged” against its own citizens.
Reality is more complicated, of course, and college graduates shouldn’t expect to lead their best lives in a New York Minute. That explains why the film can’t stick with reality long enough to make us care for the titular “Criminal.”
Plaza plays Emily, a hard-working food caterer drone hungry for a better life. She graduated college with an art degree, but a single stain on her record hurts her career prospects.
(The reveal of what actually happened is pure Hollywood Screenwriter nonsense).
A tip leads her to a petty crime ring where she can make real money at last. She’ll just have to peddle stolen credit cards for Youcef (Theo Rossi, excellent if unbelievable), a smooth-talking ringleader who doubles as her criminal mentor.
Will Emily learn that crime doesn’t pay? Are there romantic sparks between her and Youcef? Does writer/director John Patton Ford understand it takes years of hard work for Americans to elevate their status in the workplace?
Emily’s descent into rule-breaking offers a tragic arc ripe for drama. All it takes is one poor choice to set a series of events in motion that spiral out of control.
Yet Ford suggests she’s the heroine here, battling a corrupt system that demands potential employees tell the truth and not act like spoiled brats during job interviews.
Oh, and don’t take on gargantuan student loans if you have no credible plan to pay them off.
What “Emily the Criminal” does instead is make her journey phony enough to prevent us from feeling her pain.
Her early attempts at crime give her all the tangible clues that she made the wrong decision.
Neon signs are less subtle.
And Plaza plays Emily like a Jersey girl savvy enough to read said clues and act accordingly.
Alas, Plaza’s excellent performance can’t camouflage the film’s nagging flaw. No smart, empowered women would keep going after enduring what happens to our Emily.
Plaza’s work, particularly early in the film, anchors the story. Watching Emily’s face sink as one opportunity after another slips away is a thing of beauty. Equally powerful is seeing her react to a friend’s great professional news, knowing her own career make take years, or decades, to reach such heights.
Then again, pursuing an art career means traveling the globe may be a long time coming.
Ford doesn’t lecture, per se, but it’s never in doubt the message he’s peddling. His bigger crime is not making Emily’s descent credible. We’ve seen countless movies where innocents are dragged into a life of crime. We know it’s wrong, and they do, too, but the thrills become too irresistible to ignore.
“Emily” encounters pain, fear and modest rewards. Even her passion for art seems to wane the deeper she falls into the criminal life.
The film succumbs to Thriller 101, and Emily’s new-found skills don’t pass the smell test.
The Emily/Youcef bond also never fully makes sense. It’s written without a sense of cascading motivation, and learning more about Youcef’s background muddies the story in ways that hardly help.
The film’s resolution reveals the wobbly moral compass we suspected all along. That applies to both our heroine and the underlying story.
HiT or Miss: “Emily the Criminal” starts strong thanks to Aubrey Plaza’s excellent performance, but the story crumbles under the weight of its own delusions.