Synopsis: Down on her luck and saddled with debt, Emily gets involved in a credit card scam that pulls her into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, ultimately leading to deadly consequences.
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon
Director: John Patton Ford
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Actors can frustrate you after a while when you see them toiling away in roles and projects that aren’t taking full advantage of their talent. Some of that is due to getting comfortable in that well-paying pigeonhole, but it takes real guts stepping away from what is reliable and leap into the unknown. Make the wrong choice, and you could become a joke for being perceived as reaching too far out of range. Choose correctly, and you’ve demonstrated a versatility that will keep you working forever.
While Aubrey Plaza has been in a wide variety of films since she began in the business almost two decades ago, she’s traded on a particular comedic approach to her roles that hasn’t always worked for me. It’s started to grate on me after a time, so much so that I went from wanting to see her mix it up to not knowing if I wanted to see more. Recently, she’s been slowly trying the dramatic side of her acting on for size, and she jumps into the deep end with Emily the Criminal. The result is an absolute revelation, not just of Plaza doing a galvanizing complete 180 turn but realizing there’s potential for her to go even further.
With a felony charge on her permanent record, it’s next to impossible for Emily (Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) to get a well-paying job to help her pay off the mountain of debt she’s facing. Maxed out credit cards and student loans spell living paycheck to paycheck in her shared Los Angeles apartment. Working at a catering delivery service to pay the bills has put any plans for the future on hold. Hopes for a better job have her waiting for her childhood friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Late Night) to get her an interview at her competitive ad agency. Emily might be called a struggling artist if she had any energy left to pursue her former dream.
Desperate for money, a co-worker passes along info for an under-the-table gig run by Youcef (Theo Rossi, Army of the Dead). This opportunity will take Emily into an unfamiliar world of criminal dealings for which she isn’t prepared. Initially tentative about getting involved, she is gradually enticed by the prospect of making money quickly and finds that she’s better at it than anyone might have guessed. Impressing her new boss and finding a mutual attraction is growing, Emily begins to focus solely on her side gig until a series of bad decisions catch up with them all.
First-time filmmaker John Patton Ford directs from his script and gives Emily the Criminal a breathless pace without making it ultra-flashy or breakneck. It’s surprisingly tense, and more than once, I found that I was holding my breath as Emily landed in another troublesome situation. Ford’s script avoids falling into the despair of most films about felons, keeping the politicizing to a minimum and instead aiming to make the most entertaining movie possible. Yes, there may be a plot hole here and there, but they’re tiny compared to the enormous amount of running time that successfully hits the bullseye.
The supporting players are a solid bunch. I liked Echikunwoke as Emily’s friend, who may be trying to give her a leg up if it doesn’t hold her back. While both are from New Jersey, Echikunwoke’s character has better adapted to the phony detachment Los Angeles airs, something Emily has little time for or skill with. A brief scene with Gina Gershon (With/In: Volume 2) is fun but too short. An enormous amount of chemistry (not just the romantic) fuels Rossi’s performance as Emily’s entry into the criminal world. Rossi’s another good actor in the game for a while who feels like he’s continually poised to make a move to the next level.
Plaza’s the star attraction here, and rightfully so. As Emily moves from visitor to the underworld of crime to active participation, we watch her adjust her view of the world. You’d think the changes would initially be subtle, giving way to Emily emerging as a full-time fraudster, but Plaza instead rallies against that. Emily’s shift from debt-laden and soul-crushed to seeing a glimmer of hope is quick and grasping, hungry for the opportunity to get her head above water. When she reaches a precipice and stands on the edge, things get more tentative, and she must make hard decisions. Plaza handles these tonal shifts believably and with an intensity that has you rooting her on even as you know she’s on the wrong side of the law.
In films like Emily the Criminal, as in life, not everyone gets a happy ending, and you’ll have to see for yourself how the chips fall for Emily and Youcef. Each participant is active and engaged with the movie they’re making, which goes far in keeping the audience on the edge of their seat and off balance. The film is getting a release that’s perhaps too small and niche to get the kind of notice Ford and especially Plaza deserves for their work, but it would be a shame to miss out on a thriller made with such confidence.