Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Robbery, Assault and Battery

Film: Emily the Criminal
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s something about Aubrey Plaza that rubs me the wrong way. There’s a smugness to a lot of her performances, a sense that she feels too good for the material, a sort of calculated ennui, or a sense that she’s in on the joke in a way that no one else is. Because of that, I have to work my way up to watching her in anything. I’m wondering now, though, if this isn’t a function of some of the roles she has played, because it’s very much not the case with Emily the Criminal.

We’re going to immediately be sympathetic to Emily (Plaza) because she is drowning in debt. We discover that she has massive student loans that she struggles to pay off because of a felony conviction. Unable to get good paying work, she works as an independent contractor delivering catering to offices and the like. One of her coworkers gives her a contact for an opportunity to make $200 in an hour, albeit in a way that is not close to above board.

The same involves Emily posing as a dummy shopper. She’s given a fraudulent credit card and instructed to use it to buy a very valuable television. Presumably, the $200 she receives for this more than compensates her new employer, Youcef (Theo Rossi), when he sells the television out of the back of a truck. Needing the money, Emily signs up for more work, which leads to her purchasing a car with the same system. It goes badly, but she manages to get away.

This event leads to Emily getting closer to Youcef. The two of them begin a relationship and open up to each other. Emily is an artist and wishes to move to South America for a time and make a living as an artist. Youcef’s goal is to start buying real estate with the money he makes in the fraud ring. The relationship develops, and wanting to help her, Youcef teaches Emily how to make fake credit cards and IDs, and gives her the rules of how to work with the cards—primarily that she should never sell from her home and never hit the same place twice in the same week. Naturally, she breaks both of those rules fairly quickly, which leads to additional consequences between Youcef and his partner Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori).

Emily the Criminal is a crime thriller on the surface. We’re worried at what might happen to Emily when someone tries to rob the apartment of the friend she is housesitting for or what might happen between Youcef and Khalil. Sure, they’re criminals but they are also sympathetic characters who we are meant to like and identify with on some level. But, as should be the case with anything like this, there is a much deeper story here.

Agree with it or not, Emily the Criminal is social commentary about the world we live in on several levels. There is definitely a commentary here on the state of the economy and on predatory student loans. Emily’s actions come from a place of desperation—we see her make a payment on her loans only to be told that her payment goes entirely to the interest and nothing to the principal. It’s not a massive step for much of the audience to justify her actions balanced against her desperation and the crushing debt she lives under.

There’s also a commentary here on the plight of criminals in society. A large part of Emily’s issues come specifically from the fact that she is unable to find gainful employment because of the felony conviction in her past, which also caused her to drop out of college. Her crime was aggravated assault against a former boyfriend, and this might be a part of the commentary as well. We don’t get the details of this, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Emily’s assault charge stemmed from an act of self-defense that she could not prove.

There is additionally a commentary here on what feels like the impending economic collapse of the entire world. As more and more cash is funneled to fewer and fewer people, more and more of the population finds themselves desperate and flailing. Even without her felony conviction and without her student loans, it would be likely that she’d find herself in the same position—underemployed, strapped for cash, and desperate for anything to help dig herself out of the hole that the world has put her in.

All of this culminates in the climax of the film. It’s brutal and cold, but it’s also completely understandable given all that we know. In its own way, the fact that this ends up being sympathetic as well demonstrates just how well Emily the Criminal tells its story.

Ultimately, Emily the Criminal works on almost every level it attempts to work on. I’m pleasantly surprised by this. If I have a serious complaint, it's that this feels like it should have been a three-season series on NetFlix, not a 97-minute movie.

Why to watch Emily the Criminal: It feels very relevant right now.
Why not to watch: It’s ice cold.


  1. I do want to see this as I am a fan of Aubrey Plaza. I think she's hilarious.

    1. This is not at all a comedy. It's further reinforcement of the idea that while dramatic actors can't always make the turn into comedy, comedic actors frequently do drama really well.

  2. Aubrey is so good in this! I was legitimately nervous for her throughout.

    1. She really is, and that surprises me to say in so many ways. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless.