‘Emily the Criminal’ Scores Big as Winning Crime Drama

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FILM CRITIC

“EMILY THE CRIMINAL”

Rated R. At Landmark Kendall Square.

Class B+

Sporting an OK New Jersey accent, Aubrey Plaza plays the title role in “Emily the Criminal,” a down-on-his-luck crime drama set in present-day congested Los Angeles. The Emily of the title is a dropout from Bayonne with a student debt of $70,000.

Working as a food delivery boy for a Los Angeles restaurant and renting a room to an Asian couple doesn’t make life sweet enough for Emily, who aspires to become an artist. She struggles to find a better job due to a DUI and a previous felony for aggravated assault. She is lured by a tempting offer from a colleague involving a “job” as a “dummy buyer” that will earn her $200 within hours. The job requires him to break the law by using a fake credit card to buy a 4K TV, a felony that becomes a felony if the amount of money involved exceeds a limit.

At first, Emily is okay with the risk. She is then tempted by the bosses, a group of men from the Middle East speaking Arabic between them, to accelerate the purchase and the gain.

Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi star in “Emily the Criminal.” (Road Attractions/Vertical Entertainment)

Written and directed by John Patton Ford, who is making his film debut, “Emily the Criminal” is a portrait of the artist as a young criminal. We may care about Emily more than we would because she’s played by Plaza, whose gifts as a veteran comic book actor have been put to good use in comedies and dramas such as ” The To Do List”, “Life After Beth”, “Ingrid Goes West” and the recent hit “Best Sellers”, which wonderfully paired Plaza with the great Michael Caine.

Plaza perpetually has dark rain clouds overhead, whether she’s doing comedy or drama. Here, she gives Emily that adorable aura of doom. You continue to expect Emily to be arrested and sent to jail, where she may belong. Are we supposed to condone Emily’s self-destructive and illegal behavior because she’s artistic? We did it in the case of Vincent van Gogh.

Some might argue that making workers into independent contractors and using unpaid interns are equally unethical, albeit legal. Has our society crossed a line and legalized corporate crime? A friend of Emily leaves her dog with her when she goes to Portugal for a work-related trip. What are the chances that the dog will survive unscathed?

When a couple of junkies respond to Emily’s “dummy shopper” ad and try to steal her, you don’t expect what happens next. It turns out that writer-director Ford and Plaza have a few film noir tricks up their sleeves.

Actor Theo Rossi, of Italian, Lebanese and Syrian descent, plays Youcef Haddad, Emily’s Fagin (i.e. criminal mentor) and later lover and partner in crime. Gina Gershon has a fun and feisty twist as a potential employee, whose interview of a hot-headed Emily goes south fast.

Youcef’s mother tells Emily that “God will give him something”. We think we know what it is. But to the film’s and Plaza’s credit, we really don’t. The kicker is a hoot.

(“Emily the Criminal” contains profanity, violence and drug use.)

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