.Thieves Like Us: Bad girl Aubrey Plaza hits her stride as ‘Emily the Criminal’

A few of us have known someone like Emily, the protagonist of Emily the Criminal—usually for a very short time. That’s because our heroine, played in the key of B-So-What by Aubrey Plaza,  operates on the slippery edge, trying to make up her mind whether or not to go all the way and become a professional felon or to just keep slogging on in a string of miserable dead-end propositions.

Emily’s the type of person who sincerely dreads a job interview or answering questions about herself in general. Single, unattached, living in a cheap Los Angeles shared apartment, with a DUI and an aggravated assault on her rap sheet, working a drudge gig catering corporate meals and hating every minute of it, Emily is open to suggestions. That’s why her ears perk up when her friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) tries to arrange a possible ad agency position for her. Or maybe a touch more realistically, when her food-prep comrade Javier (Bernardo Badillo) asks her if she’d like to make $200 for an hour’s work. Doing what?

Soon Emily finds herself in the middle of what looks like an ex-con support group, listening to a vaguely menacing guy named Youcef (Theo Rossi) explain the Dummy Shopper racket. A window suddenly opens on a shadow economy in which big crooks give little crooks stolen credit card numbers and fake IDs to “buy” stolen merchandise from unsuspecting other crooks, as well as legitimate goods from big-box stores. And run like hell if the deal fizzles. Jumbo plasma TVs, luxury cars and dog-napped pets are part of the game. Ugly guys with Tasers, box cutters and guns swarm around Emily. But she is young, agile and more than a little bitter about her present station in life. She tries the new routine and likes it, at first.

It’s easy to imagine all the sorts of things Emily might expect in her career as a low-level thief, and all the ways real life might differ from the more-or-less sheltered existence she has as a disgruntled job-seeker carrying a massive student loan on her back. We can almost hear neophyte feature-film writer-director John Patton Ford and his production team—including 14 different producers—batting around potential realizations and comeuppances for our plucky anti-heroine. As the film progresses, we recognize most of the gags from older action flicks. They are relatively few and uniformly shopworn.

Luckily for all concerned, however, the film has an ace in the hole: actor Plaza. The 38-year-old has worked steadily in TV and movies since 2006 but has gradually attained cult status as a nasty role-player in low-budget indies. The more peculiar her character, the stronger Plaza comes across. In Life After Beth (2014) she returns from the dead for a series of awkwardly morbid encounters, in full cadaver makeup. Costumed absurd-o-gram The Little Hours (2017) finds Plaza in a medieval Italian convent where the nuns cavort carnally with the villagers. In 2021’s Best Sellers her task is to befuddle elderly author Michael Caine. And so on and so forth. Her handiest tools are the scowling face and the rapier-like verbal comeback, with a dash of sex.

Filmmaker Ford’s Emily screenplay makes good use of the wickedness lurking just beneath the surface of Plaza’s arguably comedic bad-girl persona. Her cold eyes take in the dangerous new landscape with practiced poise as deadpan insults drip from her lips. Emily is right at home in the urban hot seat, and she has definite plans for the swag. Her employment interview with ad-agency exec Gina Gershon belongs in the Take This Job and Shove It Hall of Fame. Actors Theo Rossi and Jonathan Avigdori are likewise convincing as the hoods who recruit Emily as a rookie booster. At first we’re worried about her in such rough company, but after a while it’s obvious they should be afraid of her, instead of vice-versa. Sic ’em, Emily.

In theaters now.

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