Plaza does it again, with an intense indie thriller that give UNCUT GEMS a run for its money
When Hollywood relegated Aubrey Plaza to being that “weird, awkward” girl, she did something unexpected, rather than simply allow herself to be typecast into oblivion. She started producing and starring in her own indie vehicles that allowed her to flex her acting chops through smaller, yet more thought provoking projects. While I thought Aubrey Plaza was great as the morosely hilarious April Ludgate in Parks and Rec, it was Ingrid Goes West that was an absolute epiphany to me. Plaza played a lonely husk of a woman who stalks an influencer, turning in a dramatic performance that utterly wrecked me. More recently she did the festival circuit with Black Bear, which was another one of these films that had her venturing out of that box again and turning in a meta take on an actor that was even noticed by mainstream press. Instead of returning to the Hollywood machine to cash in some of that well earned clout, she is back at Sundance with her latest “Evil Hag” production — Emily the Criminal.
Aubrey plays the titular Emily, a millennial with $70,000 in college debt looming over her and a criminal record. The problem is it’s an assault charge. While some employers will sometimes overlook a smaller misdemeanor charge depending on the crime and the promise of the candidate, a violent offense is usually a hard pass. This is what has Emily stuck on the hamster wheel of gig work, working for an Uber eats like company for catered food. One day after covering a shift for a coworker he gives her a number that he promises will net her $200 for an hour’s worth of work. Turns out it’s committing credit card fraud, by purchasing TVs with stolen cards, later to then be resold. Given Emily is by no means a dumb girl, she quickly figures out the game and starts to move quickly up the ladder. While learning the ins and outs of the scam, she falls for her charismatic teacher Yousef (The SEVERELY underrated Theo Rossi) and their relationship causes a wrinkle with his familial crew when Emily makes a rookie mistake. This all while Emily’s best friend dangles the hope of a blue collar office gig and a way out in front of her.
Like most of her indie turns, Aubrey is presenting herself unlike we’ve seen her before, she is stripped down, beaten down and her demeanor is subdued; that is until she gets her first $200. We can feel that weight of the debt on her shoulders as she tries to do the right thing early on, even though you can feel the tangible rage against that system building inside of her during an interview. It’s something as a viewer you don’t fully grasp until someone tries to rip her off and she lets go in a spectacularly badass way. This performance coupled with the love story is something that she handles with ease as she soon goes full Tony Montana in the third act chasing her “American Dream”. The script and pacing here is brisk, but tense, I mean Uncut Gems level tense. As Emily maneuvers through her criminal endeavor, she’s most definitely not safe and given the setup you’re not completely sure where she’ll land when all is said and done.
Emily the Criminal is essentially the millennial Scarface, her American dream is to be free of debt, and get an entry level internship that’s paid, which isn’t a lot to ask for. Instead of dealing blow, its flatscreen tvs and Amex black cards, and the credit companies she’s stealing from are probably the same ones that own her debt. I was rooting for her every step of the way, and Plaza here just continues to blow your preconceptions out of the water with every film like this she turns in. Emily however, is a much more vulnerable character for Plaza and one she relishes in, when she is able to deliver these moments of fragility along with not losing an ounce of her badass edge. Emily the Criminal exemplifies why Plaza is one of the most underrated actors working today, who literally had to produce her own films to show her capacity as an actor.