Endless box stores, dirty windshields, parking lots with zero shade; stalled elevators, eyebrow scars, sputtering fluorescent lights; security fences, empty fridges, cocaine with strangers in sweaty bathrooms.
Emily the Criminal may be one of the most honest L.A. movies — and American movies — of our times, if only for entirely renouncing most of the lies that Hollywood, and mainstream media, happily feeds us. The debut feature of writer-director John Patton Ford, the film swaps the glamorous trappings of rolling hills and Malibu sands for the work-day malaise and financial precarity that affect a much larger swath of the city's, and our country's, population. Gone are the blown-out, Botoxed glitterati; they are replaced with a racially cacophonous band of citizens and undocumented workers hustling to get by. Palm trees barely appear; when they do, they sway toward the asphalt.
Shot on a low-budget over three weeks during the pandemic, Emily the Criminal follows the titular Emily (Aubrey Plaza), an art-school grad who turns to a life of crime to pay off her mounting college debt. With a snappy Jersey accent and silver nose stud, Emily scrapes by delivering work lunches to downtown corporations, sketching portraits in her car between shifts. Plaza appears in every single scene of this movie — whether hauling vats of pasta or tasing a black-market boss, her electric, strikingly physical performance reminds us that she's always been much more than a quirky comic.
At the same time, Ford's script does something just as rare for a thriller with a badass female lead: swaps out the implausible, reductive "strong woman" trope for a subtle portrait of a distinctly imperfect, yet relatable, human being. Like one in five Americans, Emily is buried in debt, and like nearly a third of her compatriots, boasts a criminal record that effectively precludes gaining the means to pay it off.
"I need a job, a good job," she coolly confesses to her college bestie Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) at a trendy bar. Whereas her friend's life is "insane" because she's headed to Portugal on her company's dime, Emily can't afford her rent, let alone the paint needed for making art. When Liz arranges for her boss to interview Emily for a graphic design position, it soon becomes clear that said "job" is merely another unpaid, full-time internship with zero benefits. "I don't understand how you feel so comfortable asking people to work without pay," Emily tells the firm's president Alice (Gina Gershon). Fed up with being pedantically schooled on how awful the field was when Alice was "the only woman in a room full of men," Emily snaps, "If you want to tell me what to do, put me on the fucking payroll."
Given a lead from a coworker at her catering gig, Emily finds a different, if much less legal, way to boost her financial status: as a "dummy shopper," amassing pricey electronics and luxury vehicles in little time with fake credit cards for resale. Within unmarked warehouses and tinted SUVs, Emily quickly descends into a colorful underworld of immigrants, tough guys, and desperate single parents, all more motivated by the desire to survive than an adrenaline rush or flatscreen TV. "With a purchase of this size, the bank will call the vendor, but that takes eight minutes," explains Youcef (Theo Rossi), the operation's soft-spoken middleman, prepping Emily for her first big solo venture. "You have eight minutes to leave, or they know it's fake." With a techno score redolent of Tom Tykwer's exhilarating Run Lola Run, Emily packs more nail-biting sequences into its taut ninety minutes than the bloated Bullet Train, a half hour longer.
As much as the film crackles as a Millennial revenge tale, Emily the Criminal simmers as both a character study and a trenchant indictment of the U.S. carceral system and structural poverty it abets. More obliquely, Ford's debut speaks to the ongoing Great Resignation, wherein record numbers of low-wage employees have voluntarily quit their jobs. Is it worth working a demeaning job that can't ever pay your bills? Has our national obsession with meritocratic advancement finally reached its breaking point? "Motherfuckers will just keep taking from you and taking from you until you make the goddamn rules yourself," Emily concludes to Youcef at the film's climax. "Am I wrong? Am I wrong?"
By its final scene — a plot twist turned happy ending that upends traditional conceptions of the latter — Emily the Criminal stealthily labors to suggest that escape from the rat race is possible. Just don't expect to follow the laws of society or acceptable female behavior.