Emily the Criminal (2022)

‘Emily the Criminal’ is a smart, suspenseful crime drama

By Al Alexander

Whoever said crime doesn’t pay never met Emily, the ticked-off millennial whose mounting debts and dead-end gig inspire her to fight corporate crooks by going gangster too. The “justice” system tends to frown on that sort of thing, but in “Emily the Criminal,” her righteousness is off the charts, so far in fact, you find yourself rooting for her to give the establishment a taste of its own medicine. What in the name of moral indignation has first-time write-director John Patton Ford created?

Well, beyond eliciting an Oscar-worthy performance from the vastly underrated Aubrey Plaza as Emily, Ford has delivered the perfect movie for an era in which millions of young people are dealing with the double whammy of student-loan debt and an exploitative gig economy. In essence, he’s demolishing institutions and taking names. That means you, Amazon, Uber, Starbucks … The list goes on, but there’s not enough room in one newspaper to call them all out.

Ford’s Evil Empire is a fictional catering company in which the workers are independent contractors obediently doing what their bosses say when they say to do it. If you don’t like it, quit; there are dozens more waiting to snap up these traditionally low-paying jobs.

Ford identifies because he was once a member of this lowly fraternity. Then, Ford got a better idea. He decided to redirect his anger and frustration into crafting a script centered around an aspiring female artist who can’t land a “real” job because of a bogus felony conviction.

That would be Emily, and as played by Plaza, she’s a budding Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to herself. It begins with a tip from Javier (Bernardo Badillo), a fellow drone at the catering business, who directs her toward a man offering $200 a day for roughly two hours of work. The caveat is that it involves credit card fraud and the possibility of prison.

Are things really so bad that people like Emily consider jail time an acceptable risk so long as the reward pays the interest on her immense student loan albatross? Ford not only responds in the affirmative, but he’s also highly persuasive in making a case for Emily’s budding life of crime. I say budding because, like potato chips, one job is not enough. Although a black eye and bloodied nose administered by a ripped-off car dealer can definitely be a potential deterrent. But when your mentor is as handsome and sexy as Theo Rossi’s Lebanese immigrant, Youcef, you forge on, even enlisting his aid and expertise to strike out on your own.

What ensues borrows a bit from J-Lo’s 2019 hit, “Hustlers,” as crime quickly becomes an illicit form of female empowerment. Plaza is superb at communicating that growth from trampled-upon peon to ruthless mastermind able to talk, trick or taser her way out of any jam. Through it all, Plaza retains a high level of authenticity that consistently has you on the edge of your seat, convinced doom awaits Emily around every corner, particularly in the form of Youcef’s thuggish older brother, Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori).

What I love about the movie, besides Plaza’s transition from meek to menacing, is how cleverly Ford compares and contrasts the gig economy’s tendency to unjustly benefit the bosses, no matter if your business is catering events for Wells Fargo or pinching big-screen TVs from Walmart. There’s really no difference. And it makes your blood boil. But it also can be darkly funny, at least until multitudes start getting seriously injured.

Is Emily among them? Or, how about the wiener dog belonging to Emily’s affluent and worldly BFF, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who entrusts the beloved pooch to her pal while she’s off to other shores enjoying a job Emily would kill to land? Not fair revealing too much, but I will gladly single out a scene in which Emily interviews with Liz’s boss (Gina Gershon) for a nonpaying internship. It’s a vicarious delight watching Emily stick it to the man, or in this case, arrogant, entitled woman. It’s also brutal and profound in its slam on every exploitative boss having the gall to demand excellence from a barely compensated employee.

The only good thing to be said about the abuse inflicted daily upon hundreds of thousands of folks like Emily is that it inspired Ford to make one of the year’s finest, most entertaining movies. He flawlessly adheres to the first rule of filmmaking: write what you know. And what he knows best is diverting apathetic minds toward a practice bordering on feudalism. Only this time, the peasants like Emily are getting restless, and revenge will be thy name.

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Emily the Criminal

Rated: R for brief drug use, some violence, language

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Gina Gershon

Director: John Patton Ford

Writer: John Patton Ford

Runtime: 93 minutes

Where: In theaters

Grade: A

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