One of the biggest problems I’ve had with a lot of movies lately, especially those with assertive female leads, is that the protagonist comes pre-packaged perfect out of the box, and as such has no room to grow or have anything close to a relatable journey. This is particularly egregious as a leitmotif in Disney remakes, with the likes of Belle, Mulan, Cinderella, and Alice all having no discernible flaws, and therefore no reason to give two shits about their stories. Now obviously, you don’t want to go too far in giving your lead a set of faults, because then your ostensible hero comes off as unlikable to the point of being objectionable (like in KIMI). You also don’t want to have someone so mind-numbingly naïve and stupid that their eventual turnaround isn’t the least bit believable (my instant reaction to the upcoming The Invitation). There’s a balance that needs to be struck, but honestly I don’t think it’s that hard, and it makes me angry when productions and studios lazily decide that “girl power” means “we don’t have to try.”
Thankfully, in Emily the Criminal, Aubrey Plaza – along with writer-director John Patton Ford – finds that sweet spot. As Emily, Plaza is self-assured, smart, daring, but also eminently fallible in a way that we can all empathize with, especially in terms of the film’s blistering indictments of late-stage capitalism using all-too-familiar real-world scenarios.
The film opens with the first major example of everything wrong with our society, as a prospective employer entraps Emily during a job interview with a background check, revealing she has a prior felony conviction. The exact nature of that case isn’t revealed until much later on, mostly because it’s not particularly relevant, but it’s a perfect bullet point to start the movie. One, it establishes that Emily has dimensions beyond “badass.” She’s made mistakes, and she’ll continue to do so because she’s an actual human. Two, despite the missteps, she’s still a good, smart person whose sins don’t define her. Three, and most importantly based on all that, it begs the immediate question of what constitutes proper consequences for said errors. In the case of a conviction, there is no easy answer, but our country is quite draconian about it in this particular context. Emily has paid her debt to society, evidenced by the fact that she’s no longer incarcerated, but federal law states that once you’ve committed a felony, no employer EVER has to give you a job, which is why there’s often a box to tick on job applications to attest that you’ve never been convicted. It’s unnecessarily cruel to state as a matter of policy that once you rejoin society, you’re still obligated to make money, but no one is obligated to ever give it to you, and you have to prostrate yourself upon the altar of corporate largesse by leading with your past like a scarlet letter you can never expunge.
There are numerous nationwide grassroots efforts to repeal this rule, but as of now, it still stands, and for the purposes of this film, it’s a fantastic way to establish the stakes for Emily’s character. She’s trying to make an honest living and pursue her dreams after committing a grievous wrong. She even makes a further misjudgment by lying about the nature of her past in the interview. But we also can see that this is a catch-22 for her, as the mere existence of the conviction and the background check shows that the employer had no intention of treating her fairly to begin with, so what point would there be in her being completely honest? The result is the same, she gets a self-righteous lecture from what is statistically a different kind of criminal (perhaps even the legal kind), and she winds up right back where she started. The frustration is palpable, both for the character and for us in the audience who’ve ever experienced the inherent disparities in modern economics.
This consternation continues in the work Emily currently can hold down, catering and food delivery. As she’s snidely reminded by her boss, Marco (Rif Hutton), she has no rights as an employee, because legally, she’s not one at all. Instead she’s an “independent contractor,” a title foisted upon all “gig” workers after California passed Prop 22 two years ago, a law literally written by Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Grubhub, and Instacart so they could skirt state labor protections and prevent unionization of their workforces. Again, that law is being litigated in courts as potentially being unconstitutional (mostly because it requires a 7/8 majority in the state legislature to EVER amend, and only then with the consent of the companies), but as things stand, there is a significant sector of the population working for slave wages and it’s completely legal because corporations were able to write their own rules and spend enough money flooding the airwaves with dishonest ads that got people to vote for it. They’re so brazen about it that Uber now literally advertises that “It’s not a job, it’s a gig,” as if that’s a good thing. It is a truly rapacious situation Emily finds herself in, because despite her mistakes, she’s still on the hook for over $70k in student loans.
After a particularly rough day where Emily is put upon to cover a coworker’s shift (Bernardo Badillo), he compensates her by putting her in touch with Youcef (Theo Rossi), who runs a credit fraud operation under the guise of “dummy shopping.” Essentially, he gives people fake IDs and credit cards, gets them to buy high-end merchandise before the bank can detect the hack, and then flips those wares on the black market for a discount to the buyer but pure profit for his ring. For running the risk of getting caught, Emily and anyone else willing to make the run is compensated with $200 cash, which doesn’t go far in Los Angeles, but is still a nice infusion.
The dynamic of Youcef’s proposal works wonders within the context of this particular story, because he makes it clear that this is about making a choice. He opens his spiel by admitting that anyone who partakes will be breaking the law. They won’t hurt anyone, and they won’t get hurt themselves, but what they’re doing is illegal, and will have repercussions if they’re caught. If anyone is uncomfortable with it, they can leave, no harm no foul. He even hammers the point home by saying that if someone calls the police it won’t matter, because nothing untoward has happened yet. That’s not exactly true, as openly discussing committing a crime counts as conspiracy, but it’s a forgivable oversight because it’s a good way to establish Youcef’s confidence, as well as the appropriate transactional nature of the scheme. And most crucially, it makes sure that Emily retains 100% of her own agency. She’s not conned or roped into anything she’s not willing to do. She always has an out if she wants it. This is about her having some semblance of control over her own life and fortunes for once, and the outline of Youcef’s scam is an ideal – if anti-heroic – outlet for this need.
After a successful quasi-heist of a big screen TV, Emily is offered another job, this one yielding a $2,000 payday. It’s the same scam, but this time there’s an inherent danger, as she’s boosting a luxury sports car. When complications arise, Emily herself rises to meet the moment, willing and able to kick ass and take names, a recurring theme in Aubrey Plaza’s superb performance (seriously, her “are you fucking kidding me” eyes are on point!), and as such, Youcef is willing to take her under his wing to teach her the ins and outs of the grift, as well as forming a more personal bond.
Meanwhile, Emily is still trying to forge a legitimate career for herself as a graphic designer. She was a top student at arts college before her arrest, and she’s been trying to break into advertising ever since, a clever counter to the tired idea that art is not a legit field of study, and that people should train for “real” jobs in college. Her former classmate, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) works at a successful agency, and there’s pressure from Emily to essentially make good on their friendship and help her get her foot in the door (which is why Emily is willing to go out of her way to mingle at hipster parties and dogsit while Liz is in Portugal for work). This culminates in one of the most devastatingly brilliant scenes of the year, as Emily faces off with the head of the agency (Gina Gershon), who in another scathing illustration of capitalism’s sins, tries to “neg” her into accepting an unpaid internship rather than an actual job. Seriously, if I ever run for office, one of the core planks of my platform will be banning internships. They’re legalized slavery, nothing more.
All of this shows just how rigged the game can be for a lot of people, and if you watch this film, you will almost certainly find commonality with Emily’s plight in at least one of these scenarios. If you can’t, then congratulations on your lifelong silver spoon, pay your fucking taxes, and shut up forever.
The movie does drift into cliché territory a few times too many for this to truly be one of the best films of the year, but for the most part it’s alright. There are a few scenes with Liz’s dog that are cute, but ultimately meaningless. They exist to further establish that Liz is a shallow waste of space who only maintains her relationship with Emily so that she has someone to look down on. But honestly, every scene Liz is in already accomplishes that, from her awful friends and coworkers to her introduction, where she “unwinds” from a tough day at the office by asking Emily to do cocaine in the bathroom with her. Dogs are awesome, but the few moments this one had were basically superfluous.
The same goes for Emily’s eventual romantic tryst with Youcef. The pair never goes full-on Bonnie and Clyde, so really he’s just there for some shoehorned sexual tension and to show that Emily’s not the only one who gets screwed out of her ambitions by a system designed to exclude her. And even then, Youcef is far from sympathetic, because his dream is to own a rental property. Part of it is to “give” his mother a house, but he still aspires to be a landlord, literally someone who profits off of the basic human need of shelter, and who are largely part of the problem here in California, as they’ve lobbied and spent heavily to squash any attempts at rent control legislation for the past several decades. So yeah, hard to root for him in a larger context than Rossi’s charismatic performance. Really though, both of these flaws are seemingly only there to pad the runtime, as the film runs at a very brisk 90 minutes. Without these two subplots, the film is barely longer than a short, so I get it.
For what the film is, a smart crime thriller that shows how some good people are forced to do bad things to get by, it works to a great degree. Aubrey Plaza is at the top of her game, and the script is strong enough to make it clear that despite all the evils of modern capitalism, Emily can still make her own decisions and accept the consequences that come with them (including acquiescing to them for a simpler, less fulfilling life), knowing she’s an imperfect human being who will occasionally fuck up. When the film tries to be more than it is, and when it’s clearly just killing time, it can drift dangerously close to boring, but thankfully, it never fully gets to that point, and on the whole this is an exciting experience worthy of your time.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you like when comedic actors like Aubrey Plaza take on more serious roles? Would you take the risk of fleecing merchandise for quick cash? Let me know!