Aubrey Plaza’s best role of 2022 wasn’t in The White Lotus, but an obscure crime thriller
If it’s good enough for Obama’s 2022 movie list, it’s good enough for you.
Why watch Emily make a fool of herself gallivanting around Paris in tacky platforms with trust-fund baby price tags when you could be watching Emily commit credit card fraud?
Such is the choice Netflix subscribers have had to make recently, as both Emilys (Emily Cooper, unable to pronounce croissant, and Emily Benetto, bad girl gone badder) have appeared on the streamer. While Lily Collins radiates bubblehead joy throughout Emily in Paris, Aubrey Plaza, who stole scenes in Season 2 of The White Lotus, is all slow, bubbling-over rage in Emily the Criminal.
Emily the Criminal, a high-octane crime thriller too unnervingly realistic to be escapist entertainment, stars Plaza as a woman struggling to live, let alone make a living, in Los Angeles. She’s drowning in student loans, mostly because an aggravated assault and a DUI on her record prevent her from scoring a stable job. She works as an “independent contractor” for a catering company, which only scratches the surface of her IOUs. Overwhelmed and unable to make a good impression on her boss (Gina Gershon), Emily is about to move back to New Jersey before a co-worker connects her to a “dummy shopper” service. It’s revealed to be part of a credit card fraud ring organized by Youcef (Theo Rossi), but it promises to make Emily $200 per hour, so she’s in.
Emily the Criminal is serviced by standout performances from Sons of Anarchy star Theo Rossi, who portrays Youcef as an atypically tender fraud ring boss, and Megalyn Echikunwoke, who, as Emily’s friend Liz, simultaneously plays the worst and most relatable acquaintance you’ve ever seen on-screen. Rossi in particular does an outstanding job capturing the nuances of Youcef, who runs a tight ship but also takes the time to tend an employee’s wounds and flirt with Emily in his dinky office. He, in turn, is aided by a sturdy and subversive script that gives viewers no choice but to yield to his authentic, low-key charisma.
Supporting cast aside, Emily the Criminal is a must-watch because, unlike all the big indie titles and even bigger blockbuster titles that dominated the silver screen in 2022, it says everything it needs to say in a pacy 97 minutes. That’s a rare bird these days.
But the biggest attraction here is Plaza, who juggles Emily’s rights and wrongs with pitch-black comedy panache amid writer and director John Patton Ford’s ambiguous atmosphere. Plaza, known for playing the disturbed deadpan chick archetype in Parks and Recreation and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, was made for a character like Emily, but she also makes Emily her character. An aggressively flawed millennial stuck in a perpetual rut and morally corrupted by the American dream, Emily needed to be worn rather than wear out her actor. Plaza deftly tackles the balancing act the role requires, keeping viewers on Emily’s side even when she teeters on the edge of irredeemability.
As deceptive as its characters, Emily the Criminal skewers the shortcomings of a bootstrap mentality in an increasingly all-encompassing gig economy designed to feed a fortunate few and devour the rest. It’s a sink-or-swim world out there, and Emily chooses to swim regardless of whether she has the current. Not all viewers will respect her extravagant shoplifting cons, but many will have been in her position: Hanging by a thread and a single paycheck, desperate to find the easiest path out.
Emily the Criminal is streaming on Netflix.