Published on August 11th, 2022 | by Craig Silliphant


Emily the Criminal

In Emily the Criminal, Aubrey Plaza plays a woman in debt getting sucked into a criminal organization. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth a watch.

One of the best things that Emily the Criminal does is capture the zeitgeist of where people are at right now, both financially and mentally. We’re living in a world where inflation is soaring, interest rates are skyrocketing, and many people are living under a cloud of debt. They’re finally seeing through the cheap old sentiment of ‘pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.’ They’re just looking for a side hustle to make ends meet.

In Emily the Criminal, Aubrey Plaza plays the title character, who is living paycheque to paycheque, saddled under a mountain of debt and working (what we Gen Xers used to call) a McJob. She gets a strange opportunity one day to make a bit of extra cash, something safe, but illegal, and she dips her toe in the water. Soon enough, she’s being pulled deeper into a more dangerous organization than she originally thought, by a man named Youcef (Sons of Anarchy’s Theo Rossi), who is higher up on the criminal ladder.

Structurally, the movie works really well. There’s a push and pull between the underworld that sometimes puts her at physical risk, but also provides cash — and the legitmate world, which offers her self-respect, but never seems to pan out. The juxtaposition of these worlds drives her motivations and makes for some smart character development.

At first, they build her as a sympathetic, but it’s soon clear that she is a massively flawed character, who makes a lot of stupid decisions and mistakes.

However, one of the flaws of the movie is also buried in that idea. Sometimes the characters, or really, the script, takes some short cuts into unrealistic little moments or plot contrivance. Early in the film, Emily comes out of a store after successfully stealing a TV. She also inadvertently steals a ballcap. A loss prevention officer comes out after her and asks her if she’s going to pay for the hat. She says, “duh, sorry,” gives it back, and he’s all, “no problem! See you lady!” Of course, in reality, she would have been arrested for theft. It’s meant to be a cute little moment of tension, but it bends reality to suit the script. In another movie, or in reality, she would have been arrested, which would have also led to the realization that she stole the TV too (which might have been an interesting twist).

That’s really a nitpick of a small moment, but there are some big ones too. As she gets deeper into her life of crime, she is attacked in an effectively scary scene. She realizes that Youcef isn’t telling her the truth about safety and she is quite visibly shaken — rightfully so. But two minutes later, Youcef tells her he’ll show her how to put ice on her face properly (really?) and suddenly she’s inviting him up to her apartment (REALLY?).

She goes from being on the cusp of PTSD to horny for the guy that keeps putting her in harm’s way. She doesn’t seem to consider that she’s quitting in a huff and they don’t know if she’s going to go to the cops or what. I’d assume he wanted to get into my apartment (especially with such a baffling excuse) to kill me to keep me quiet. Since this isn’t where the movie is headed, the script plops in this cheap moment to get us from point A to point B — in other words, to deepen her relationship with Youcef. It’s unearned.

So, bad writing or just a really stupid character? I don’t know. But I do know that there were more moments like that throughout the movie.

Now, to make a sharp left, Aubrey Plaza is amazing in the film. I constantly marvel at her ability to choose interesting projects like this or Black Bear and then shine in them. It would be easy to think of her as that grouchy young lady from that sitcom, but she makes bold project choices and then does great work in them. Emily the Criminal is no exception. She is utterly believable as the broke woman, the poor decision-maker, but also the whip smart adapter who is breaking bad.

Theo Rossi, unfortunately, doesn’t do as well. His accent is so terrible that it’s distracting; it pulls you right out of the movie. Plaza is giving the performance of the year, and Rossi lets her down at every turn.

I’ve heaped some praise and I’ve made some loud complaints — so where did I land?

Overall, I enjoyed Emily the Criminal quite a bit. It has some frustrating flaws, but it’s a well-plotted, character-driven story. It has a point of view on the world and it’s also a tense crime drama. I’m even more interested to see what Plaza does next.

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is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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