The message in Emily the Criminal seems to be that a felony cannot be overcome no matter the well-intentioned convictions of the felon. In John Patton Ford’s directorial debut, the odds against the title character are as stacked as the giant aluminum food trays she hauls to corporate luncheons in her dreary day and sometimes night job. Another career opportunity starts out as fast money and remains so but becomes increasingly less easy. An alternative path to legitimacy is frustratingly and convincingly shown as more challenging.
Emily (Aubrey Plaza), an L.A. resident by way of New Jersey, is knee deep in student loan debt as she scrapes by in the meal delivery industry. Her options are limited due to an assault charge. Her friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) tries to get her in on the ground floor at an ad agency though the timing never seems right.
A coworker hips Emily to the “dummy shopping” game where she purchases pricey items with fake credit cards. With the promise of making $200 for a hour’s worth of work buying a flatscreen TV, the initial gambit pays off flawlessly. She’s introduced to one of the ringleaders Youcef (Theo Rossi) and her second assignment hints at the risks lying ahead. However, there is no amount of bulk sandwich spreads that can compete with the bread earned. Soon a romance develops between Emily and Youcef while the latter’s up in the chain brother (Jonathan Avigdori) doesn’t welcome her presence.
Known more for her sardonic sense of humor, Plaza once again shows she has dramatic chops (we witnessed it in Black Bear too). Emily’s circumstances naturally make her a sympathetic figure yet the star and writer/director Ford develop a multidimensional figure. This warts and all approach elevates the narrative. She’s neither a hero or a villain and it appears a share of her problems are self-inflicted. A job interview as she’s screened by Liz’s boss (Gina Gershon) arguably displays this. Her main character trait is she’s a survivor. Plaza excels at exhibiting the determination.
Ford is a filmmaker to watch. He employs a gritty 80s thriller vibe in this saga of perilously living and hopefully not dying in Los Angeles. Crime might just pay in Emily the Criminal and I felt rewarded as we see if this leads to her decline.
***1/2 (out of four)