How far has Aubrey Plaza come since Parks and Recreation? Well, as the title character in 2022’s Emily the Criminal, she gets to do something that April Ludgate would only dream of: shout at a prospective employer while rejecting an unpaid internship.
When Emily, a 30-something food service worker with slightly-above-average student debt, follows up on a tip from a coworker about a chance to make two hundred dollars in an hour, she finds herself in the middle of a credit card fraud scheme led by Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousin Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). Emily soon discovers that she’ll need reckless courage to be successful in her new side-gig, something that she fortunately possesses in copious amounts. As she sinks ever deeper into her dangerous relationship with Youcef, she’ll have to decide how far down the criminal road she is willing to go to achieve her goals.
John Patton Ford, making his feature film writing/directorial debut (although you’d never know it from that classic Hollywood name), clearly wants to send a relevant message about the student debt crisis. Emily reminds the audience throughout the movie of her most pressing financial concern; she talks about it at every job interview, calls the student loan servicer in surprise about the amount she is paying in interest, and even reveals her total debt at one point to be seventy thousand dollars. Such references may sound on-the-nose, but Ford is illustrating that the debt crisis – which is too familiar to be dismissed – is creating desperate people. Desperate people do desperate things.
Each of the characters in Emily the Criminal represents a different fairy-tale perspective on the world. Youcef, whose criminal enterprise seems like the same sort of too-good-to-be-true business as any multi-level marketing scheme, firmly believes the day is coming when he can save enough money to buy a rental property and become respectable. Youcef’s mother Luna (Sheila Korsi) takes this illusion one step further, believing, perhaps in willful ignorance of the truth, that her son is a respectable businessman, remarkably blessed by a deity. Emily’s old friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) lives in that “young professional” dreamworld of comfortable apartments, overseas work trips, and an abundance of “friends” – and thus only has the capacity for a superficial friendship with the representation of genuine harsh reality that is Emily. Emily, although possessing some modest life ambitions, seems to be the only character exempt from the rose-colored glasses.
The literal and proverbial star of Emily the Criminal is Plaza herself. Plaza blends her deadpan wit with a frustrated pessimism to create the angry and boldly aggressive character of Emily. It’s somewhat hard, for those of us who devour Parks and Rec, to divorce Plaza from her memorable misfit April. So many of Plaza’s roles outside of the long-running sitcom have encapsulated pieces of what Plaza gave to April; her determined quirk, her insecurities, her deadpan. But Emily captures one piece of Plaza’s abilities that some of the other roles miss – April was a badass. Emily the Criminal is partly a fish-out-of-water story, but Plaza’s fierce performance ensures that we are just as much afraid of the fish as we are rooting for the fish.
There is a lot of plot to Emily the Criminal and it sometimes falls into paint-by-numbers patterns. It is elevated, however, by a dynamic performance from its lead, some effective and nail-bitingly tense moments, and a true thematic voice from its director. It’s well worth your time and money – even if you yourself harbor student loans – so see it in theaters while you can.