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'Emily the Criminal'

Aubrey Plaza shines in this working-class neo-noir thriller

Aubrey Plaza is doing crimes in 'Emily the Criminal.' Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

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Ever since her days on Parks & Recreation, Aubrey Plaza has excelled at playing characters who can cut you to ribbons with a withering glance or a deadpan observation - and yet they seem to have just enough vulnerability, a kind of reluctant humanity, that makes them more complex and empathetic than our initial impressions. Plaza is a unique screen presence who adds an electric spark to every project. 

In John Patton Ford's edgy and intense working-class neo-noir thriller Emily the Criminal, Plaza does some of the most impressive and richly layered work in her career as a Jersey-born California transplant who made some bad decisions when she was in college and finds herself still trying to climb out of a hole a decade later. It is one of the best performances of the year in one of the best movies of the year. 

Set in a gritty Los Angeles where the daytime sunshine is so blindingly bright it feels like a film negative and the nights are pitch-black and filled with shadowy characters who aren't to be trusted, Emily the Criminal employs a less-is-more strategy from the get-go, doling out just enough key pieces of information to keep us riveted. This tone is set in the opening scene, when Plaza's title character is being interviewed for a position by a supervisor who takes almost sadistic delight in trapping her for lying on her resume and telling her to her face that there's no way she's getting this job. (This isn't the first time Emily will find herself in dicey situations with people who initially appear to be friendly but then bare their claws.) 

Saddled with $70,000 in student loan debt for an art degree she couldn't complete due to unforeseen circumstances, Emily works as an independent contractor for a catering company, hustling all over town to deliver trays to offices and special events where the clients regard her as a nearly invisible nuisance who just needs to get out of the way so they can chow down. 

When Emily does a solid for her coworker Javier (Bernardo Badillo), he returns the favor by giving her a tip that could lead to a lucrative side gig. Emily arrives at a warehouse and takes her seat along with a dozen or so others, as a soft-spoken man named Youcef (Theo Rossi) asks the assembled group: "Do you want to make $200 an hour?" Youcef makes it clear that what they'll be doing is illegal, and Emily considers heading for the exit - but man, does she need money. The payments she's making on her loan aren't even enough to cover the interest. 

Turns out Youcef and his more intimidating, brutish cousin Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori) are running a widespread operation involving stolen credit cards and fake IDs. On Emily's first job, she buys a flat-screen TV under an assumed identity, hustles out of the store and meets Youcef at a designated spot, at which point he hands her the two hundred in cash and says there's more where that came from. Soon Emily is using a black card to buy a luxury automobile from some shady dealers, and to say things go sideways on THAT job is an understatement. 

Director Ford does a magnificent job of raising the dramatic stakes as Emily plunges deeper and deeper into the criminal vortex, highlighted by a Tarantino-esque sequence in which Emily is robbed of all her cash as well as a friend's dog, and we'll say no more about how that plays out. 

As the relationship between Emily and Youcef becomes something bigger than conspirators and they begin to dream of the obligatory life after crime, we see moments when Emily tries to connect to the straight world, e.g., when her best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) hooks her up with an interview at Liz's ad agency. Gina Gershon kills it as Liz's smug and self-pleased boss, who believes Emily should be on her hands and knees in gratitude for a chance at an unpaid internship, given Emily's past. Let's just say Emily doesn't see things that way, and actually becomes more committed to more dangerous but potentially lucrative crimes than Youcef. 

Emily the Criminal doesn't excuse the actions of this antihero, but we can see how she has talked herself into this potentially life-threatening corner. (Early on, when a sympathetic Youcef asks her if there aren't any other ways for her to make money, she shoots the same question right back at him.) Theo Rossi delivers outstanding work as Youcef, who has no qualms about running a criminal enterprise but has a soulful side, and genuinely cares for Emily. Rossi and Plaza make for a sizzling team; we believe every syllable of their dialogue, every development in their relationship. It's almost criminal how good these two are together.

Emily the Criminal

Three and a half stars

STARS: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi and Jonathan Avigdori

DIRECTOR: John Patton Ford

RATED: R for language, some violence and brief drug use

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