Live by the sword, die by well, you know. The latest from Roadside Attractions stars Aubrey Plaza as Emily. She has massive student loan debt and a minor criminal record. In today’s gig economy, she has no benefits as a caterer, and the doors to career opportunities are closing rapidly. Randomly, she takes a chance on a quick cash grab to do something “illegal but not dangerous.” What could go wrong? The debut film by writer/director John Patton Ford is ripe with small but essential details about living broke in LA. Most likely, there are no “big scores” in Emily’s future like the 65 million dollar payload in Michael Bay’s delirious, drone-filled Ambulance. In this film, getting 200 or even 2000 bucks is a big win.
Stories about cons, the good ones, are much more relatable than the crime sagas of Goodfellas or other films chronicling big organized criminal operations. Often there’s a “what would I do in this situation?” vibe that looms large, even if the stakes aren’t the kinds that make headlines. While The Sopranos found relatability in its suburban sprawl, Tony’s kingdom, often the hows of all that money got muddled. Plus, there’s a uniqueness to con tales. Emily The Criminal is as different from The Color of Money as that film is from Hustlers. Yet, they all start small, making the more grounded schemes more understandable.
As she did in Ingrid Goes West, Plaza has a gift for making potentially off-putting characters easy to root for (I mean, until we’re clearly not). Casting is vital. Zoey Deutch is another performer with similar strengths. Her character in Hulu’s Not Okay has a scheme of her own too. A great deal of these kinds of character connections comes from non-verbal cues supplied by the actor. The way Emily sizes up a room full of thieves, as well as corporate lackeys, says more than needless dialogue exchanges. Often the script by Ford offers Emily a choice down her lawless path. Does she keep going?
While her actions might allow her to live up to the film’s title, her position in society is never forgotten. Director Ford wisely doesn’t have Emily wax poetic about the socio-economic disparity of a generation in debt. Okay, that’s not entirely true. There’s a terrific confrontation between Emily and a would-be employer played by Gina Gershon. The subject of unpaid interns versus the old school “back in my day” nonsense is on point. Plus, when is not fun to see Gershon kick someone when they’re down? Even if we’re rooting for them to succeed? Thankfully, Emily doesn’t find herself on a staircase like showgirl Naomi Malone.
When the story is focused on Emily’s journey from small-time crook to a slightly bigger one, it succeeds. All the while, her place among the have and have-nots in LA is rightfully illustrated. Organizing silver tins filled with pasta, veggies, and more as a caterer and then a smash cut to Emily’s candy bar dinner is telling. There has got to be a way out, even if it’s illegal. It’s hard not to agree with this assessment. As she learns about credit card fraud, we do too.
Unfortunately, even at a quick 96 min, the script too often veers into some familiar territory. Emily’s teacher for “dummy shopping,” played by Theo Ross, is only half successful. The tired trope of being a possible love interest rears its unnecessary head right when the stakes are raised. Emily’s lone friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) feels like a missed opportunity. Liz is a corporate player, yet not much is observed by way of the economic divide between them beyond the obvious.
Overall though, Aubrey Plaza has once again delivered a strong, memorable performance. The premise is solid, yet too much, especially in the last act, feels like an all to familiar shell game. That said, Emily the Criminal is an easy recommendation for fans of Plaza and lovers of the con.