Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 26, 2023)
Best known for dark, dry comedic characters, Aubrey Plaza goes more dramatic with 2022’s Emily the Criminal. In this flick, she plays Emily Benetto, a young woman in problematic financial straits.
Trapped with student debt that she can’t shake, Emily can’t land a good job due to a felony conviction in her past. When a co-worker suggests that she work as a “dummy shopper”, she leaps at the chance.
This leads Emily to meet Youcef (Theo Rossi), one of the gig’s ringleaders, and she soon learns that this all acts as a form of consumer fraud. Though initially appalled, Emily’s desperation prompts her to embrace the situation and send her down an increasingly dangerous path.
As noted at the start, much of Plaza’s work leans toward comedy. Along the way, she perfected a cold, borderline cruel – but still funny – “Aubrey Plaza Character”.
Emily doesn’t force Plaza to abandon her MO entirely, as we can see parts of her standard approach here. However, she definitely goes for a more serious take.
Can Plaza pull off a straight role without strong comedic overtones? Definitely, as Plaza becomes arguably the movie’s biggest positive.
Emily offers a challenging role because – as the title implies – she acts as a criminal. The film uses this status in a semi-ironic way, as it doesn’t depict Emily as a “criminal” in the standard sense, but nonetheless, she does break laws.
Indeed, that acts as the reason Emily finds herself in her current predicament. With a felony in her past, she finds it impossible to get work that pays well enough to dig out of her debt.
This leads to some of the film’s social commentary, as Criminal shows that prior misdeeds can make it tough for citizens to avoid subsequent crimes. With plenty of talent as a designer, Emily tries desperately to move ahead in that field, but when society repeatedly slaps her down, she feels she enjoys no options other than a life of continued crime.
Though this and other themes act as an undercurrent, they don’t turn Criminal into a pedantic lecture. Instead, the film mainly acts as a thriller in which we see the ramifications of Emily’s actions.
Not that anyone should expect slambang action, but Criminal does embrace the suspense related to Emily’s pursuits. The deeper she digs, the more danger she encounters, so we view the risks that come along for the ride.
As such, Criminal never becomes an especially deep tale despite its social elements. Much of the movie sticks with the tension connected to Emily’s crimes, so we find ourselves wrapped up in those moments.
Despite a character not granted a ton of dimensionality, Plaza brings life to Emily. She never begs the audience to like her – or even really sympathize with her – and she also lends Emily an edge that makes us suspect she actually prefers life on the wrong side of the law.
At a taut 97 minutes, Criminal gets in and out without much fat. It brings a brisk mix of thriller and character piece.