Aubrey Plaza Takes Control in “Emily the Criminal”
There is no less specific, more generic expression in film criticism than “documentary realism”. It assumes that all non-fiction filmmakers are working in the same style, towards the same intentions, while suggesting that realism means, what, exactly? “Gritty” instead of “stylish?” Handheld camera instead of fixed?
“Emily the Criminal,” a tough-and-lean little LA detective story, invites docu-realistic description, and its highly promising writer-director John Patton Ford steps out of the realm of documentary. But it is no less indebted to the desperate Depression-era dramas Hollywood was producing, often thrillingly, in the pre-Production Code era of the early 1930s.
It’s also a great dramatic showcase for Aubrey Plaza, whose wide-eyed intensity is on par with pre-Code stars such as Ann “Scarface” Dvorak. Plaza honed his sardonic comedic chops on “Parks and Recreation” and, more recently, modulated his can’t-miss-a-ride deadpan through a slew of indies and grime like “Dirty Grandpa.”
Good or bad material, she is an asset, a wonderfully precise yet natural-looking performer. “Emily the Criminal” delves only so far into the Page’s character, but from what writer-director Ford gives her, Plaza creates a woman defined by increasing degrees of economic stress and quivering resolve.
Emily is a caterer, barely getting by, with $70,000 in student loans and an aggravated assault conviction blocking access to better-paying jobs. A co-worker mentions a scam he’s tried before: a credit card scam, run by an enterprising family working in a warehouse.
Using fake cards and fake IDs, the so-called “fictitious buyers” use the cards to purchase goods, deliver them to the boss, and get their modest share. Emily’s first purchase is a $2,000 television. His commission: $200. It’s a beginning.
Soon, she moves on to riskier and more expensive fake purchases. The scene in which she buys a fancy sports car escalates into a relentless exercise in pushing her own tolerance and taste for danger.
Where “Emily the Criminal” goes from there combines familiar ingredients in an absorbing way. This is a film shot in real apartments and offices on a tight budget. Theo Rossi brings an astute and watchful quality to the role of Youcef, Emily’s handler and, eventually, lover. He is part of an extended family (also implicated in the charge card scam) who pose a growing threat to him and Emily.
There are no better options for the protagonist. “I haven’t done anything in a while, artistically,” Emily told a guest at a party hosted by her ad agency friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Already, Emily’s secret life, her life of credit card fraud, has begun to consume her. This is his new artistic medium: the art of underground flight.
Some of the developments feel more timely than provocative, and there’s an overly polished ending. But there’s more than a kernel of truth in Criminal Emily in almost every interaction, and every sad acknowledgment of the backlash of American capitalism. At one point, Emily lands a job interview at her friend’s advertising agency, run by a smiling shark (Gina Gershon, perfect). For a second, the boss is buddy-buddy with Emily, since they’re both from New Jersey; next…well, in the unpaid internship business, there is a winner and there is a loser.
The confrontation between these two, like the rest of this efficient and confident film, wastes no time and leaves the actors – Plaza especially – to take care of business.
“Emily the Criminal” – 3 stars
MPAA Rating: R (for brief drug use, some violence and language)
How to watch: Premieres in theaters August 11; premieres August 12 at the Music Box Theatre.
Michael Phillips is a reviewer for the Tribune.
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