Aubrey Plaza, the star of today’s film Emily the Criminal (2022), and I probably have little in common. As I understand it from watching interviews with her, she had a Catholic upbringing. So, there is one trait we share. Given other things I have learned about her, being baptized in the Church is perhaps where our similarities begin and end. I am generalizing, of course, but since I still practice the Faith and she has a production company called Evil Hag Productions, I suspect my theory is correct. That is okay. Because she was in my beloved Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), I enjoy her work. Well, I like those two things, anyway. They make up the first reason I chose Emily the Criminal. The second is because it is a film about a person trying to pay off student debt. As somebody who owes a large amount of money in this regard, I thought I could at least relate to the character if not the actress. This turned out to be false, too.
Emily the Criminal is Emily Benetto (Aubrey Plaza). She is on the job market to find some kind of gainful employment to pay off the aforementioned debt. The problem is that she has a history of run-ins with law enforcement. As it is explained later, this stems from being arrested while in college for assaulting her boyfriend during an argument. It is a mark on her record about which she is defensive, and she leaves the interview we first see her in indignant over having to explain herself. Instead, she goes back to her current work as a food delivery person, bringing lunch time banquets to busy office settings. Meanwhile, her student loan amount never seems to go down. After a delivery with her co-worker Javier Santos (Bernardo Badillo), he informs her that he needs to take his son to a baseball game and asks if she can cover for him. This comes with a lead on how to make a quick $200 by being what is called a “dummy shopper.” She is not sure what this entails, but she shows up at the appointed time to learn about it because she needs the money. It does not look promising. The address she is given is a barely used store front where she is ushered into the back and asked to hand over her driver’s license. Next, she is told up front by the person seemingly in charge, Youcef Haddad (Theo Rossi), that what her and other recruits are going to be asked to do is illegal. If that is something that makes them uncomfortable, they should leave now. With some hesitation, Emily stays. Eventually, she is handed a fraudulent credit card and told to buy a large, flat screen television. Once the transaction is done, all she has to do is walk out the front door. Since this goes relatively smoothly, she agrees to do a similar transaction, but with a bigger, more expensive item. The subsequent target is a luxury vehicle. This one, though, results in her getting her nose bloodied when the sellers realize that she is not legitimate. Nonetheless, she manages to get the car to Youcef and collects $2,000. Emily is understandably upset and is ready to quit despite Youcef’s apologies and assurances that it was not supposed to be this dangerous. At the same time, she is being told by her college friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) that the ad agency Liz works for could have a position for Emily. It is all theoretical, but what keeps Emily interested is seeing the freedom that Liz has with her life. Yet, because the employment has yet to materialize, Emily goes deeper into the world of credit card fraud. With Youcef’s help, she even begins to branch out on her own. When her first client tries to give half of what they agreed upon for a stolen television, she also shows a tenacity in getting the proper amount. She takes this a step further when another set of clients tries to rob her, and she ends up tasing them. Her success in doing her own work impresses Youcef, and there is a growing attraction between them. At one point, he brings her home to meet his mother and he shows her a building he hopes to buy with the illicit funds he has gained. There are two events, though, that begin the process of unraveling all they have done. The first is Youcef’s cousin and business parter, Khalil Haddad (Jonathan Avigdori), getting suspicious of Emily and stealing all the money. At first, this is a secondary concern as Liz has arranged for an interview for Emily with Liz’s company. What ruins her chances this time is the notion that the position would be an unpaid internship. Because she needs money now, she once more leaves in indignation and agrees to help Youcef retrieve the money. When it is not where it is supposed to be, she urges Youcef to go after Khalil with her assistance. They manage to get inside the house where Khalil is staying, but it comes with Khalil and Youcef being mortally wounded. Still, she has the money in hand, and decides to get out of town before anyone, including the police, are any wiser. In turn, she pursues one of her dreams to live in South America. There, she is able to able to draw and swim in the ocean to her heart’s content. Unfortunately, her heart is not content, and the last thing we see is her giving the same speech Youcef gave her to a room full of potential dummy shoppers, this time in Spanish.
So, Emily the Criminal, despite being beaten, held at knife point, involved in high-speed chases, and severely wounding Khalil with a box cutter, has learned nothing. Of course, the Catholic side of me wanted to see Emily walk away from these illicit activities before she gets too deep. The movie kept offering glimpses of a possible better nature. She takes care of Liz’s dog while her friend is out of town for work. Emily also seems to genuinely get along with Youcef’s mother. These are some of the only instances of her smiling. The rest is her seemingly being preoccupied and deadpan, not to mention this cynical quest for cash. In reality, and I can speak from experience, student loans are not something that should lead anyone into criminal activities. The government has programs for dealing with these issues. Yet, if Emily had done the sensible thing, then we would not have a movie. Either way, no amount of money owed is worth breaking the law. Temporally speaking, there is the old adage that crime never pays. Theologically speaking, crime is a dishonest way of making a living. Put differently, the wages of sin are not worth it. The damage to one’s soul and the potential eternal consequences are difficult to see in the immediate, but are stark in the long run. Sadly, Emily cannot see that far.
If you watch Emily the Criminal for the performances, then it is a decent movie. Where it falls apart for me is in the way that Emily does not seem to have a character arc. She is pretty much the same person beginning, middle, and end. She does learn a new set of skills, but they are not ones any honest person would want to possess. As such, I would avoid this one.