The eponymous Emily in Emily the Criminal (played by Aubrey Plaza) is, put simply, tired. Tired of her mundane job, tired of her irritating roommates, tired of fruitless job interviews, and, most of all, tired of being poor. It’s a sort of bone-deep exhaustion that will feel all too familiar to any millennial audiences saddled with debts they can never meaningfully pay and locked out of so much of the economy by greedy older generations. John Patton Ford’s debut film (produced by Plaza herself) is at its strongest when it’s driven by this very real rage, elevating an otherwise merely serviceable crime thriller.
An artist by training, Emily, drowning in student debt, is constantly turned away from good and worthwhile work thanks an aggravated assault conviction on her record, and so works a dull and often dehumanising food delivery gig. After doing a favour for one of her co-workers, though, she gets set up with a not-strictly-legal gig as a ‘dummy shopper’ for small-time Lebanese gangster Youcef (Theo Rossi), taking a fraudulent credit card into a shop and using it to buy a TV, which she then hands over to Youcef’s guys. It’s $200 for less than an hour’s worth of mostly risk-free work, but Youcef and Emily take a liking to one another, and it’s not long before she’s in deep with his organisation, duplicating cards herself and making thousands selling fraudulently acquired goods.
From this point on, there’s not much that will surprise in Emily the Criminal, the stakes escalating in familiar ways that are often fun but sometimes feel cheap – there are a few moments that rely on bad decision-making that feels out of character and the introduction of an adorable dachshund during a robbery is a cliched way to pad out the peril. You can sometimes tell it’s Ford’s first time behind the camera, too, and none of the set pieces have any particularly kinetic charge.
He’s on far sturdier ground when he’s examining the class issues that have pushed Emily into this new line of work, all debt traps and impossible LA rents. In fact, the best scene isn’t related to any lawless enterprise, but is instead a job interview Emily gets that turns out to be for an unpaid internship. Ford frames this system as just as criminal, and far more undignified, as anything Emily is doing, the boss (a venomous cameo for Gina Gershon) berating Emily for being too ‘spoiled’ to take, essentially, an indentured servitude position. It genuinely boils the blood, and also makes smart commentary on how vacuous capitalist ‘girlboss’ feminism is in the context of class struggle – you wish more of the film could take place in this world.
Plaza is, of course, great (since Parks and Rec, she’s become one of the most consistently interesting working actors), and her chemistry with Rossi is one of Emily the Criminal’s greatest assets. You believe it completely when the pair move from a professional to romantic relationship and, as a team, it’s impossible not to root for them, whether they’re hooking up at a party or raiding the warehouse of one of Youcef’s competitors. It’s this dynamic that really keeps Emily the Criminal ticking along, a solid and dependable bedrock for a similarly reliable, if unremarkable, thriller.