"...Plaza’s groundbreaking performance is a marvelous, career making thing of beauty"

It Would be Criminal if Emily Gets Forgotten

(092222) Emily the Criminal is an extremely strong and gritty neo noir that is filled to the brim with anger and class resentment. It does a better job at capturing the current generation’s frustration and powerlessness in the current job market than any recent film I can recall. Because of its attention to seedy detail and its convincing depiction of a whole criminal underworld, it reminded me of another great crime film, Mike Hodge’s Croupier (1998), which was even closer to the style of classic film noir.

The film was directed and written by the newcomer John Ford Patton, who shows a steady and expert hand as he slowly builds up the characters and complicates the plot in intensity. Patton often uses handheld camera and naturalistic lighting to capture the drab and hopeless nature of Emily’s dispiriting reality which might partially mirror what some recent graduates go through. Ford said that when he graduated from college, he felt tremendous anxiety because of his huge debt and he wanted to make a film that captures that anxiety. The Emily character never quite graduated from college though. When she is asked about why she quit she responds, “Legal fees and student loans. I had to take care of my grandmother: I had to work.”

Emily the Criminal features a powerhouse dramatic performance by Aubrey Plaza (she also co-produced the film) who was previously known mostly for quirky comic performances in the critically acclaimed TV show, Parks and Recreation, as well as the trashier, big budget films, Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. But she also did a terrific job playing a mentally unstable lead in the more dramatic Indy cult classic, Ingrid Goes West, which up until this film was Plaza’s most memorable and ground-breaking performance. Plaza has also made a big impression with her bizarre and nervous late-night talk show appearances and she may be taking Andy Kaufman’s place as the best weird talk show interview guest.

Plaza’s usual flat delivery and barely concealed sarcasm which is reminiscent somewhat of the sarcastic cartoon character Daria (who was a Beavis and Butthead spin-off) is used to good effect playing a character much darker than her usual roles. Sometimes she cannot conceal her anger at the privileged and her face hints at her contempt which almost trips her up in some criminal ventures. You could tell what a supreme effort it is for her to be nice.

Her character Emily (like many graduates) is a young woman who followed her dream and went to art school which left her with a $70,000 debt. Since she has a record for a minor crime, she has next to no chance at getting a good career and she works a nothing job that will go nowhere making deliveries. Her boss treats her like trash and when she complains that her hours were cut, he says, “I’m sorry are you an employee? No, you’re an independent contractor.”

Then she gets a tip from a friend which interests her. A smooth-talking Lebanese man named Youcef, who turns out to be a criminal (well played by Theo Rossi of Sons of Anarchy) suggests she can make quick easy money with a minimum of risk if she breaks the law. Emily is like a fish who is lured (or groomed) to endure greater and greater risks as the jobs get harder. The first time, Yousef asks her to to be a “dummy shopper” and to buy a wide screen TV using a stolen credit card number. For the next riskier job, she is told that she had only eight minutes to pick up a car because it takes that long to verify the payment with a bank. The paperwork takes longer than is expected and she barely gets away after a violent struggle with the car salesman which leaves her face covered in blood.

How far will she go and is it possible for her to follow a better path?? Emily tries hard to get a legitimate job but the odds seem hopelessly stacked against her. Her friend that went to art school with her who unlike Emily has “made it” gets her an interview at a fancy advertising agency. It seems like a dream job that would put her art training to good use and she gets her hopes up. But then she finds out it is an unpaid internship in which she would be working full time. The scene shows the callousness and complete predatory nature of some employers in the current job market. Afterwards, she completely commits herself to a life of crime and declares “People just keep taking from you until you make the god_ _ rules yourself.”

Emily needs to make money but she also seems to get off on the danger. Of course, she is hardened immeasurably by the criminal life and becomes perhaps stronger and more daring than her boss. After she gets robbed, she screams, “We’re serious people. You should be scared of us!”

Viewers are sure to feel empathy and a sense of wasted potential as Emily gets deeper into her criminal lifestyle and loses more and more of her soul. The cumulative effect of the show is similar to what someone might feel observing the main character in Breaking Bad, who started out as a sympathetic and not terrible guy who gets into crime to pay medical bills and gradually becomes a monster that operates completely in a moral vacuum.

Although the plot is engaging and suspenseful, the main reason to see the film is Plaza’s groundbreaking breakout performance which is a marvelous, career making thing of beauty. It also happens to be one of the bravest and most believable acting jobs of the year. It would be a real shame if this spirited film and its lead performance gets overlooked during the awards season.

Directed & Written by:    John Patton Ford
Starring:    Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Kim Yarbrough
Released:    08/12/22 (USA)
Length:    98 minutes
Rating:    R for brief drug use and some violence
Available On:    Currently playing at some local theatres is also available on Video on Demand on the US

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL © 2022 Vertical Entertainment
Review © 2022 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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