Movie Review: Aubrey Plaza is the voice of her generation — “Emily the Criminal”

A young career criminal gives his protege — “Emily the Criminal” — a look after she says something that definitely ups the ante and increases the risks of their latest undertaking.

“You’re a very bad influence,” he mutters.

Emily is played by Aubrey Plaza. So talk about “goes without saying.”

The cinema’s favorite “naughty girl” turns “badass woman” in this gritty and bitingly-topical thriller set in LA’s thriving illegal underground economy.

The milieu is the world of stolen credit cards, the thin line that many see and cross to use them and the nerve it takes to walk into a business with fake card and fake ID and walk out with a flatscreen TV, sound system, laptop or automobile.

First-time feature-director John Patton Ford’s slap-in-the-face thriller is about generational angst and generational burdens, watching the star-kissed succeed and live their best lives while you’re trapped under student debt, “entry level” work and a dream that dies a little more with every “your payment was applied to the interest, not the principal” message.

Emily has it worse. We meet her at a job interview where she’s tricked into minimalizing something on her “permanent record,” a college-years assault charge.

We watch her struggle, sharing a dumpy apartment with a young Japanese couple, delivering for a catering company and never getting the graphic artist gig interview with the firm where her gorgeous high school pal (Megalyn Echikunwoke) landed. We see her flinch when Liz shares her “going to Portugal, for work” news. And we pick up on Emily’s kryptonite.

She has two of those, one being a temper and outspoken willingness to call out abusive employers, would-be employers and “internship” hustlers.

“Are you an employee?” one of them barks back. “You’re an INDEPENDENT contractor. It’s not like you’ve got RIGHTS.”

And a night of “just drinks” with Liz reveals Emily’s other handicap. She ends up staggering onto the sidewalk, from liquor to a random guy’s offer of coke, in a flash.

But a colleague texts her a phone number, a “dummy shopping” hustle, offering “$200 in an hour.” That’s how she meets the sketchy Yousef (Theo Rossi, excellent), his ruder and sketchier brother Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori, brooding menace incarnate) aand her introduction to the world of bad credit cards, fake licenses, bad checks and bad people on both sides of almost every transaction.

We hear the rules and guess which ones Emily is fated to break.

“Don’t mess with ATMs, don’t meet customers in your home, don’t go to the same store more than once a week.”

We pick up on how tough and morally “flexible” Emily is. We see her eyes widen as doors seem to open, if only a crack.

Could this be her ticket out — of debt, working poverty, the limited horizons dictated by her “permanent record” past?

Plaza turns off her bug-eyed on-the-make act, and dials down her finely-tuned “bitch you don’t want to cross” for Emily, a fierce creature when she’s cornered, and this world seems dead set on cornering her.

Rossi plays Yousef as cagey — perhaps smitten, perhaps using or “playing” Emily. Is he really a Lebanese guy in an unsavory line of work but idealistically determined to go legit and see his American Dream come true?

And Gina Gershon shows up as an “unpaid internship” employer, the person who uses Millennial “lazy” “spoiled” slurs to justify exploiting people like Emily. Emily both fits the stereotype — “I just want to be free. I just want to experience things, travel” have money without the hazing rituals of grunt work life — and is EveryMillennial’s nightmare, buried under college debt before life even begins.

I love the portrait painted here, of a flawed young woman trapped in a system that seems corrupt wherever you look. The people buying the illicit purchases from her are far bigger crooks and more dangerous, and plenty of those she purchases from are just as sketchy as her and Yousef.

Ford has tapped into resentments deep and wide here, and in Plaza, he’s cast the perfect complaining spokeswoman and one badass broad who isn’t going to take any of this lying down.

“Top Gun” may be the blockbuster of the summer, and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” the movie event of the season. “Emily the Criminal” is the face and voice of not just the summer, but an American generation right now, looking for a break and desperate enough to cross the line if they don’t get it.

Rating: R, violence, brief drug use and “language” (profanity)

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Bernardo Badillo, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Jonathan Avigdori and Gina Gerhson.

Credits: Scripted and directed by John Patton Ford. A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:34

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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