The films that are the toughest to write thoughtful and genuine criticism for are films like “Emily the Criminal.” Not because they are bad, but because they are rock solid in what they are trying to do, but don’t expand much beyond being a reliable genre entry. “Emily the Criminal” is exactly that. It has a simple and effective narrative, a lean runtime, and enough action along the way to make it worthwhile.
“Emily the Criminal” is also a star vehicle for one of the industry’s biggest risers. Along with starring in the newest season of HBO Max’s “The White Lotus,” Aubrey Plaza has had a busy year. “Emily the Criminal” is one of the few films in her career that falls solely on her shoulders. It passes if she is effective and fails if she is not. But it’s safe to say that she delivers in one of the year’s most concise films.
Aubrey Plaza plays the title character Emily, who is swimming in student loan debt and a criminal record that inhibits her from landing stable jobs. When she’s invited to help in a credit card fraud scheme, she soon finds herself wrapped in the criminal underworld in Los Angeles – a world that presents danger around every corner. As she dives deeper and deeper into her new profession, she finds that leaving her new world is much more difficult than entering it.
The premise may sound cliché or unoriginal, but one aspect of “Emily the Criminal” that works in its favor is that it feels notably fresh compared to its crime genre counterparts. There aren’t genre films being made that make an honest effort to relate to and understand college students and adults entering the work force. I can’t say that I’ve seen a film centered around student loans as a plot device in a thriller, but I dug it and found it quite effective.
But again, I may have felt otherwise if the material wasn’t being handled by such an accomplished and seasoned actress. Aubrey Plaza plays the insecure, intimidated young adult perfectly, and it’s the central crux of the film that allows the rest of it to play out without any hallow emotion or weight. It bounces from plot point to plot point with few snags or missteps along the way.
Characterization can be pretty bland throughout, mainly because the film doesn’t spend much time building on each character’s one driving motive throughout. Emily’s handler Youcef (played by the likable and charming Theo Rossi) wants to develop property and make safer income for himself, but there isn’t much beyond this piece to his character.
Even Emily herself is given just enough backstory for the character to work and fit, but there isn’t enough here to make her a well-rounded main character. It forces the film to operate at a higher level in atmosphere and tensity, and for the most part it works, but it stops Plaza from being able to elevate as an actress.
“Emily the Criminal” also struggles to conclude in a plausible and profound way. I struggled with how the story ended for Emily and where we left her as the credits began to roll. Perhaps the film is attempting to portray that once crime enters your life, it’s impossible to fully break free from it. Or maybe, quite honestly, how young adults are treated as they enter the workforce out of college. “Emily the Criminal” has a large meting pot of ideas, but it struggles to convey them in ways that are easy to grasp onto as it ends.
But “Emily the Criminal” is still an effective and fun thriller. Aubrey Plaza excels in the material she’s given, and there’s enough of a runway to make an impact as a performer. First time director John Patton Ford proves he has a talent for ramping up tension and setting stakes in a marketable fashion, and how to find an audience and connect to them. It won’t have your jaw on the floor as it ends, but the ride is worth the price of admission (even if the price is just a monthly subscription to Netflix at the moment).