When it comes to Aubrey Plaza, most people immediately think of her quick-witted poker-faced style of humor. And rightly so. The 38-year-old Delaware native has mastered the art of dry deadpan comedy, and her steely stare along with her pitch-perfect comic timing have become signatures. For that reason it may be easy to forget that Plaza is also a really good dramatic actress. Her lights-out performance in “Emily the Criminal” is a nice reminder than she is far from a one-dimensional talent.
“Emily the Criminal” marks the impressive and assured directorial debut for John Patton Ford. He writes and directs this thoroughly compelling crime drama that takes a hard look at a slice of the Los Angeles underworld. By centering on Plaza’s character, Ford is able to offer us a unique perspective, not only into the inner-workings of the LA crime scene, but also into the societal ills that can drive a smart and talented young woman to the point of breaking the law.
Plaza plays Emily Benetto, an aspiring artist in LA who was forced to put aside her love for painting in order to make ends meet. Buried under $70,000 of student debt, Emily is stuck working for a food delivery and catering service just to pay the monthly interest on her loan. She’s tried to get a better job, but two blemishes on her permanent record keep coming back to haunt her. Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Emily’s old high school friend who loves talking about her own successes, keeps promising she’s going to pull some strings to get Emily an interview at her ad agency. But like every other potential lead in Emily’s life, that has yet to happen.
Frustrated with her inability to get a “real job”, Emily takes the advice of her coworker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) and texts a number that he says will score her an easy $200. She followers the address she’s given to an old dry cleaners where a smooth-talker named Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousins run a ‘dummy shopper’ scam.
It goes like this: the ‘shopper’ is given a credit card and a fake ID. They then go into a designated store and purchase a flat-screen television with the fake card. They drop off the merchandise to Youcef and collect $200. Here’s the catch – the information on the card is stolen. “You won’t be in danger. You won’t endanger another person. But you will be breaking the law.” You have to give him points for honesty.
After some very brief hesitation, Emily pulls off the job, collects her money, and impresses Youcef in the process. He introduces her to some riskier but higher paying scores before hooking her up with her very own racket. Before long Emily has fully reached ‘small-time criminal’ status, but when she accidentally breaks one of Youcef’s cardinal rules, it brings the dangerous side of the criminal world to her doorstep.
From there “Emily the Criminal” plays out like part crime drama and part character study. The genre conventions work well in large part because Ford keeps things grounded. But the character study element, laced with some well-handled social commentary, gives the film a sharper than expected edge and places the characters within a world than will resonate with many viewers who will see glimmers of their own experiences.
The movie does lean on a few hard-to-miss tropes in the final act as it reaches its eventual climax. And there is an element of Emily and Youcef’s relationship that needed more attention. But there is a steady tension throughout the second half that keeps you locked in. And I can’t say enough about Aubrey Plaza’s performance. Not only does she keenly capture Emily’s vulnerability but also her toughness – both pivotal ingredients to this fascinating character. And while some of her choices are unquestionably dishonest, Plaza earns our empathy and helps us to see Emily’s many layers. “Emily the Criminal” is out this Friday in select theaters.