Emily The Criminal Review: Aubrey Plaza Is Superb In This Gig Economy Crime Saga [Sundance 2022]

Aubrey Plaza is becoming one of those "must watch" performers; the type you go out of your way to see, no matter what the movie. Heck, she might already be there. With "Emily the Criminal," Plaza takes on perhaps her most dramatic role yet; even more so than her exceptional, unhinged work in the oddball "Black Bear." Despite how frantic and manic that movie became, there remained an air of humor — albeit dark, bleak humor. Not so with "Emily the Criminal," which has Plaza breaking bad as Emily, a young woman with considerable student debt and a criminal record that keeps her from being gainfully employed. Then she learns about something called "dummy shopping," a process that involves buying expensive items (big TVs, cars, you name it) with stolen credit cards and then selling the goods for a profit. The cards are supplied by Youcef (Theo Rossi), who strikes us as vaguely threatening when we first meet him. Emily is understandably hesitant to get involved with this sort of thing, but when she learns she can make $200 for about an hour's work, and later $2,000, she decides to go for it. 

These early moments of "Emily the Criminal" are intriguing, anchored by Plaza's committed performance. Right from the jump, Plaza is constructing Emily in such a way that when the time comes for her to start engaging in full-blown illegal activity, we believe it, and we understand it. She has a deep hurt in her eyes, coupled with a disposition that screams out for some sort of cosmic justice. It's like her life has been stolen from her, and now she's found a way to get it back. And getting it back involves credit card fraud. Lots and lots of credit card fraud. She's reached a point in her life where she seems to have two choices: work incredibly low-paying gig jobs to get by, or cut her losses, leave Los Angeles, and return home to dreaded New Jersey. But then this third, illegal option comes along. And it sure seems mighty tempting. 

After two "dummy shopping" runs, Emily gets it into her head that she can cut out the middleman and go into business for herself. She turns to Youcef for help, and it appears that the character's menacing nature was something of a ruse, or at least a misconception. He's not some one-dimensional crook; he has hopes and shattered dreams of his own, and we can relate. Writer-director John Patton Ford continually finds ways to make these characters seem rounded; believable. Nothing is in black and white. There's no good or evil. There are just struggling characters at the end of their ropes, doing what they need to do to survive. We may not be able to condone their actions, but we can understand them, and that's no small feat for a film like this.

A Crime Saga for the Gig Economy

The first section of "Emily the Criminal," where Emily learns how to build up a credit card fraud empire of her own while growing closer to Youcef, features the film's strongest moments. They seem grounded and gritty, stylized while also maintaining a sense of realism. The down-and-out world the characters inhabit feels genuine and lived-in; a world of bad lighting, bloody noses, crumbling parking lots, and cheap apartments. Adopting a slight but convincing New Jersey accent, Plaza grows confident in her actions and starts raking in the cash. But a movie like this needs conflict, or at least it thinks it does, so the good times can't last. 

First, Emily is ripped-off by some creeps — and after a beat, and with a little help from a taser Youcef gave her, she's able to go get her money back. But "Emily the Criminal" decides to up the stakes even further by introducing a conflict between Youcef and his partners running the fraud scam. And it's here where the movie flounders, because it starts to feel like it's more about Youcef than it is about Emily — as if Emily is just along for the ride. Rossi does good work making Youcef seem three-dimensional, but having Emily take on a supporting role in the character's drama never sits right. 

Still, Plaza's performance, which grows more desperate and more fierce, is what keeps things going. Tension continually mounts and builds, and writer-director Ford stages several anxiety-ridden set-pieces that inspire a sick-to-your-stomach feeling. This is a pressure cooker of a movie, and sooner or later we know it's all going to explode. Coupled with the prevailing sense of economic hopelessness, "Emily the Criminal" often feels like a crime saga for the gig economy; a "Scarface" for people who work at DoorDash, with capitalism as the film's Big Bad. This is all solid stuff, but I can't get beyond the movie's climactic sequence, the one that seems to sideline Emily when this should remain solely her story and her story alone. Ultimately, the most memorable, outstanding element of "Emily the Criminal" is Aubrey Plaza, and I can't wait to see where she goes from here.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10