Easy Money

For fans of character-driven crime dramas, “Emily the Criminal” is a movie to seek out and savor.

 Aubrey Plaza stars as Emily, an art school grad saddled with $70,000 worth of student loan debt and an assault blemish on her record that prevents her from gaining employment above menial labor. We learn early that she’s scrappy and one to stand up for herself (the assault beef from an abusive boyfriend in her teens). Even working for a catering company only gives Emily enough to pay for the accumulating interest on her loans.

 Working a double shift to help a co-worker, the co-worker responds in kind by hooking Emily up with an underground outfit where she can make fast cash. The job? Buying goods with stolen credit cards. The outfit has their stuff together- they even provide fake IDs to their “dummy shoppers” in case the retailer runs a check. At Emily’s first meeting, Youcef (Theo Rossi) instructs the group of potential shoppers with a low pressure spiel: it’s illegal and candidates can leave if they’re uncomfortable, but the job pays $200 cash and no one gets hurt. With nothing to lose as her record’s already tarnished and needing the money, Emily accepts.

 Emily’s first outing as a “dummy shopper” goes well- she buys a big screen TV with a fraudulent credit card and gets paid $200. If she’s interested in another round, Youcef will provide her with a job that pays $2,000. Emily accepts again and, while she succeeds in delivering for Youcef, an altercation with the seller leaves Emily with a swollen nose. The tight scrape shows Emily’s tenacity, and Youcef gains enough respect for her to have her venture out on her own on his behalf.

 Supplying Emily with a credit card forging machine, Youcef makes her an independent contractor. He gives her a few basic rules and a money limit to hit for him. Branching out on her own, Emily is introduced to the criminal element- not only buyers for hot goods who aren’t good themselves, but situations that wind up being set-ups. The more Emily works for Youcef, the closer they become until the film begins to present its conundrum- how far down the road can you travel until there’s no turning back?

 What I liked best about “Emily the Criminal” was its modern-day twist on the old tale of the ex-con resorting to their criminal ways. While Emily didn’t go to prison, the blight on her background was damning enough. In a lot of ways, the film reminded me of 1978’s “Straight Time” with Dustin Hoffman- both of the film’s protagonists mean to go the straight and narrow, but when they’re met with opposition from a society that deems them worthy of only the bottom rung in the workforce ladder, they turn to illegal ways that pay. Crime pays if you’re savvy to the game and, if you’re tough enough, the rewards outweigh the risks. Having to grind for even the easiest employment, Emily proves tough enough to be a criminal.

 Written and directed by John Patton Ford, “Emily the Criminal” has a natural ambience and hand-held camera work that makes the movie feel real (with lighting and music reminiscent of another of my favorite character-driven crime dramas, Michael Mann’s “Thief”). As for acting, Theo Rossi as Youcef is refreshingly low-key and likable as Emily’s handler/lover but, above all, this is Aubrey Plaza’s movie.

 As a character, it’s an easy move to make Emily more anxious, but Plaza plays it cool which makes her turn to crime and confronting the problems within her illegal profession more believable. By keeping neutral in the emotional spectrum of scheming and set-ups, Plaza’s performance is a smart one and one that engages you into investing in Emily’s predicament. I wouldn’t be surprised if awards came her way for her performance (she’s that good).  As an independent movie, “Emily the Criminal” won’t be easy to catch but keep it on your radar- it’s impressive enough not to be overlooked.

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