Emily the Criminal (2022)

Several of the comedians who worked on Parks and Recreation have had productive careers behind the camera since the show ended in 2015. (Jesus Christ… has it really been seven years?)

Aziz Ansari earned acclaim as creator and showrunner of streaming comedy-drama Master of None. His career has been tripped up by allegations of sexual misconduct twice — his own in 2018 and Bill Murray’s just this year, which caused the filming of Ansari’s debut directing effort, Being Mortal, to be suspended. Natalie Morales, who played a supporting role in Parks and Rec, directed two films released in 2021, including the charming found-footage-esque Zoom comedy, Language Lessons. Billy Eichner, who joined in the show’s later seasons, released his passion project, Bros, a gay Apatovian romcom, just this year. Amy Poehler’s directorial debut, Wine Country came out in 2019, and her sophomore effort, teen comedy Moxie, came out last year.

All of this doesn’t include the cast’s work in front of the camera: Chris Pratt is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood these days, and Adam Scott is rightly getting recognition as one of the best comedy actors in the world.

But nobody’s post-Parks career has been more interesting than Aubrey Plaza. Plaza is not only an indie darling who gets cast in all sorts of oddball projects that need a blast of wry energy and tension, she has started producing her own starring projects. In the past five years, she’s produced four films: The Little Hours, Ingrid Goes West, Black Bear, and now Emily the Criminal. Of the other three, I’ve only seen The Little Hours, but based on that and the loglines of Black Bear and Ingrid Goes West, I can say with pretty high confidence that this is the least weird of her production efforts yet.

Emily the Criminal is a thriller about the moral descent of a woman saddled with student debt and a felony conviction. It’s clear that Emily is bright and driven — she’s a graphic designer by study, and we see her sketching in her spare time. But she’s unable to find a job and forced to work demeaning menial labor: delivering catered meals for white-collar offices whose denizens gawk impatiently as the meeting lunches are assembled.

One day, Emily gets invited to a business seminar that turns out to be a credit card fraud operation. With nothing to lose, she dives into the endeavor, striking up a partnership with ringleader Youcef (Theo Rossi). As the movie progresses, she finds herself at constant crossroads about just how far to go down the path of criminal life. Whenever it seems like she’s ready to take a step back towards respectability — her initial vision of herself — something goes wrong, and she’s left scrounging, further dehumanizing herself. Capitalism do be like that.

This is a taut, anxious film. Its moments of levity are few. There’s a relentlessness to its cadence that is intentionally exhausting. Every one of Emily’s turning point is resolved with resigned exertion: The foe often ends up being Emily’s own willpower, the tension boiling down to the question of whether she’ll succumb or push harder than everyone else around her. Either way, it seems likely some institution will chew her up and spit her out.

John Patton Ford is the film’s debut director, and he lends the film a subdued but tense naturalism. It’s a lightweight but effective Paul Greengrass imitation. We’re so immersed in the physicality of each scene that each bump in the road is a visceral gut punch; and each victory, small though most of them are, is a deep sigh of relief. The color tone is muted and gray, reinforcing the chilly intensity of the scenario. I frankly think it could have used a few more jokes. I was worn out after a hundred minutes.

The acting is solid, especially Plaza. Her performance is enigmatic and dangerous, and she sells the moments of violence better than I expected. Her chemistry with Rossi is quite good; it’s a fairly breezy bond, but they do great work with smirks and smolders.

By the second half of the film, it’s mostly ditched any attempt at anticapitalist commentary and become a crime genre film — minus a terrific scene where Emily goes berserk when she learns the humiliating details of a potential internship. Much of the film is content to be a simple but effective suspense film rather than anything cerebral, and that’s perfectly fine. The film moves quickly, and is extremely watchable, at least from a formal perspective. From a narrative perspective, it’s stressful in a good way.

My biggest complaint about the movie is that it doesn’t figure out how to increase its tension as the stakes ramp up. There’s a fairly early car robbery that is the peak of the movie’s suspense, in part because the movie still has a tight grip on reality. The actual climax is higher stakes, but much less exciting.

Emily the Criminal never quite finds a proper raison d’etre, a reason for us to really care or remember it. But it is very well made and another showcase of Plaza’s talent. I look forward to what she does next, and would happily watch Patton’s next film.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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