Emily the Criminal

Emily the Criminal

To paraphrase the late Charles Bukowski, nobody suffers like the working poor.  Emily (Aubrey Plaza), the eponymous character of Emily the Criminal, is a perfect example of that truism.  She works for a food delivery service, making just enough to afford her car and room in someone else’s apartment.  Emily is a heads-down, hard-working type, and needs a better-paying job to do more than exist.  Unfortunately, an old felony conviction for aggravated assault keeps her shackled in place.  That incident ended her college career and left her on the hook for $70k in student loans.  Basically, Emily is trapped.  She can’t get an office job because of the felony on her record, and without a better paying job she can’t pay off her debt.

After being humiliated during an interview over her lack of candor about her felony, Emily does a favor for her co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo).  As a thank you, Javier texts Emily a number for a “dummy shopper” gig.  “You can make $200 in an hour,” he says.   Emily attends a “training session” that explains how the scam works.  The dummy shopper buys an expensive product like a big screen TV using a fake credit card.  You then turn the merchandise over to your handler outside the store and get cash in return.  Emily initially balks at the idea, but Youcef (Theo Rossi), the ring leader, says that the odds of her getting arrested are small.  Emily nervously goes through with it, and Youcef offers her another gig with a much bigger payday: $2k.  Higher rewards mean higher risks, though.

Her next assignment requires Emily to pay for an expensive car using a fake bank check and a stolen black card.  (The unsaid key to the scam is having a pretty White woman be the front.)  Everything proceeds smoothly until the last minute, when the dealership manager is alerted to a problem and attempts to pull Emily out of the car.  Scared and bleeding, Emily speeds away and escapes with the car.  The experience leaves Emily shaken and crying, but Youcef befriends and calms her down.  With the pain subsiding, Emily sees an opportunity to better her situation.

With Youcef’s help, Emily starts her own operation and makes good money.  There’s a scare or two, but she overcomes them with a newfound resilience.  Her friendship with Youcef turns romantic, and the two allow themselves a moment to share their dreams.  Unfortunately, a video of Emily on a police website results in a falling out between Youcef and his partner, Kahlil.  With both of their dreams at risk, Youcef and Emily decide to take back what was stolen from them, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences.

As Emily, Plaza is a revelation.  Gone are her trademark quirks and sarcastic remarks.  In their place Plaza gives us a character subsiding on fierce determination.  (Emily’s situation certainly is no laughing matter.)  However, the emotional immediacy Plaza gives Emily is something I hadn’t seen from her before.  Plaza has been taking roles in small pictures for years, stretching herself incrementally every time.  All of that hard work has paid off with one of the best performances of her career.

First time director John Patton Ford delivers a taut thriller that shows how criminality is often born of necessity.  It also makes a subtle yet impassioned case for both felony expungement and student debt relief, two issues that Ford uses as the dramatic foundation for this story.  With Emily, he shows us that personal responsibility only goes so far when you have two millstones weighing you down.  The result is issue advocacy on a micro-budget, and surprisingly moving.   Recommended.

Analysis

As you may have guessed, Emily the Criminal is a polemic that strongly advocates for both criminal record expungement and college debt relief.   The awareness of and general sympathy for both issues has increased significantly over the last several years, to the point where real change has either happened by degrees with the former, or was on the precipice of happening with the latter.  While articles and news reports have made the same arguments as those presented by this movie, they are unable to show dramatically what life is like while being weighed down by both of these boat anchors.

For an argument to be convincing, it must address the counter-argument.  I was impressed by how Emily the Criminal does this so efficiently and matter-of-factly, without fanfare or fireworks.  Most of the arguments that people make against criminal record expungement and student debt cancellation involve personal responsibility.  You made a mistake, and have to accept responsibility for your actions.  The movie addresses this by showing how Emily is not looking for a hand-out or is making excuses for her actions.  She fought with her boyfriend, the results of which resulted in her being unable to pay off her student loans.  She wants to pay off her debt, but the felony on her record prevents her from getting a good-paying job that would enable her to do more than cover the monthly interest.  She’s diligent and hard-working, but that will only get you so far in a job that probably pays in the teens per hour.  She never denies how she was responsible for the state her life is in.  She just wants a chance at a better life, but how can she if she can never be free of her past.

Emily has tried doing the right thing, living her life on the straight-and-narrow, but her situation hasn’t changed.  The movie shows how job creators (the people with capital) do their best to keep the working class stuck in their situation.  The hiring manager in the beginning uses Emily’s record to break her down during her interview.  (He claims that his tack was to ensure generosity on both sides, but my guess was his actual goal was to get her to accept as little money as possible and be grateful for it.)  Emily’s manager cuts her schedule when Javier tells on her.  Liz’s boss tells Emily that she needs to work for 5-6 months as an unpaid intern in order to be considered to be hired as a paid employee.  Youcef was strung along by Kahlil for months and never got paid for his work.  Time and again, the movie shows how the rich do whatever they can to keep ahold of what is theirs.  It’s no wonder that Emily turns to a life of crime: it’s the only career that doesn’t care a whit about her record.  (In fact, as it turns out, it’s actually a plus.)  

The movie does stack the deck in favor of Emily becoming a criminal over going back to her normal life, but not without making the risks and rewards clear.  Emily could go back to food delivery, a career with low risk, little reward and no chances for advancement.  Her life would be  safe and secure, but with little freedom.  As a criminal, the rewards are much greater, but the risks are always there.  She has the chance to make a lot of money, pay off her debts and do what she wants, but the threat of physical violence is always there, or even death.  Emily the Criminal is very similar to movies about criminals and gangsters, except that it doesn’t depict a  normal life as a reasonable choice.  For Emily, crime is the only means through which she can  actually live.  The alternative is merely existing, a life that is a slow march towards death.

Emily the Criminal succeeds in large part due to Aubrey Plaza’s performance.  She seems drawn to roles like that of Emily, a person who isn’t glamorous, lives outside the mainstream, who is either quirky or edgy or both.  I’m shocked that she’s able to get funding for projects like this, for movies that offer her a solid acting challenge but would never garner an audience beyond her small but loyal legion of fans.  While Plaza has had roles in movies that have been popular, like Dirty Grandpa, Child’s Play and MIke and Dave Need Wedding Dates, those would never be considered as blockbusters.  She is well known, but is not a bankable actress, and has never starred in a movie that made over $50 domestic.  How she has managed to make one or two personal projects a year for the past ten years, none of which have ever made more than a couple of million at the box office, is a mystery to me.

That Plaza has turned the goodwill from her iconic role in Parks and Recreation into a long and prolific movie career that borders on cult status is nothing short of amazing.  Maybe she’s the savviest actress who ever lived, having found a way to make profitable, low-budget movies without having to compromise her artistic sensibilities.  (If she ever found her way into a superhero movie, I would be shocked.)  

Like most of her small-budget films, Emily the Criminal is the Aubrey Plaza show.  (The movie’s budget was reportedly in the $1-2m range.)  What I admire about Plaza most is that while she could easily keep doing a variation of her April Ludgate character from Parks and Recreation, she has chosen projects that have let her incrementally expand beyond it.  Her performance as Emily is unlike anything I’ve seen her do before.  There’s no evidence of her trademark deadpan sarcasm and oddball mannerisms.  Instead, she portrays a working class person with a resigned,   world-weary attitude.  Emily is tired, frustrated and angry at the cards she’s been dealt.  She’s on the verge of giving up hope, but holds onto the notion that her hard-work and determination will eventually yield something positive.  Plaza’s performance is probably her most urgent to date, one where she’s fully present in every scene, like a ticking time bomb that you’re waiting to go off.

To the credit of Plaza and director Ford, the movie never once delves in melodrama.  Instead, it keeps Emily and her situation emotionally grounded.  After the terrifying encounter with the dealership manager, Emily is overwhelmed and cries, but never after that point.  Instead, her sense of self and empowerment grow as her solo criminal enterprise takes off.  Emily was always resilient, but now she can use that trait to do more than just endure.  After living a life held in stasis for years, she can finally taste what she’s always wanted: freedom.  Sure, she appreciates her relationship with Youcef, and enjoys things like parties and sex.  But Emily’s primary motivation is rooted in liberation, not romanticism.  The way she leaves Youcef behind to die was callous in a way, but her decision to do so was true to her character.  

Plaza’s Emily certainly is one of the most emotionally raw characters I’ve seen her take on.  In the past, I’ve marveled at how she’s one of the few actors who can build a career on ironic detachment.  (She reminds me of Bill Murray early in his career, before he started taking on more dramatic roles.)  With this movie, Plaza sheds all of her layers and leaves herself  completely vulnerable, and the results are very impressive.  Whether it’s her boiling rage in the two interview scenes, her cautious romanticism with Youcef or her growing hard-boiled attitude as a criminal, Plaza shows a range that I honestly didn’t realize she had.  (She also does a convincing New Jersey accent throughout.)  I have no idea where her career goes from here, but perhaps her performance in this movie will be seen in time as a turning point.  She could be a late bloomer, although at 38 she’s hardly old.

Writer-director John Patton Ford also deserves much of the credit for the success of this movie.  He stuck with his project for twelve years and managed to make a solid movie, even after he had to pare things back to fit a micro-budget.  As it turned out, he didn’t need an epic chase scene (or two) to make the movie work.  He had what all good-to-great movies need:  a great screenplay.  Then, he had two great leading actors in Plaza and Rossi who were able to bring out every emotional nuance of the dialog.  (I don’t know how Ford managed to get Gina Gershon for the role of Liz’s manager Alice, but she delivered a great cameo performance.)  Finally, Ford’s story tapped into two issues that have been part of the national zeitgeist for years.  All of those add up to a solidly entertaining and affecting movie, one that should help him get funding for more projects in the future.

My only quibble with Emily the Criminal was the fairy-tale ending.  The movie had an undercurrent of tragedy throughout, where I knew that the criminal’s good luck would eventually run out and result in tragedy.  (Think Johnny Handsome, Drive or Widows.)  The movie nearly ends on that note, with Youcef presumably dying from a head injury.  However, Emily somehow manages to evade the law and make it to South America, where she can draw and swim in the ocean.  Given that she’s a fugitive who’s wanted for several felonies, possibly even murder, I’m dubious that she would be able to walk around in broad daylight without altering her physical appearance at all.  

None of this is to say that the ending doesn’t work.  The movie sets up what we see when Emily says her dream is to live out of the country and visit South America.  Logically, the ending makes sense.  There’s something about it though that felt a bit off.  The ending is a bit too fortunate.  Too convenient.  Too Hollywood.  To be honest, I didn’t want to see Emily behind bars or lying dead in the street.  With everything she went through, I can understand why the movie wanted to give her character a happy ending.  As glad as I was to see Emily finally living her dream, it nevertheless felt like a betrayal of the tone of the entire movie.  A bit of wish-fulfillment in what had been a brutally honest story.  That said, the ending I was anticipating would have made securing funding for the movie almost impossible.  Don’t get me wrong, Emily is still a very good movie.  Perhaps next time around, Plaza and Ford will skip the sentimentality and go for the jugular, figuratively and literally.

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