‘Emily the Criminal’ plays victim violin

“Emily the Criminal” works best as a time capsule.

Aubrey Plaza plays an unlucky soul struggling with college debt and a terrible mistake. His project ? Break both the law and common sense to get ahead.

The film doubles as a critique of modern capitalism, suggesting that the current system is “rigged” against its own citizens.

The reality is more complicated, of course, and college graduates shouldn’t expect to live their best lives in a New York minute. This explains why the movie can’t stick to reality long enough to make us care about the titular “Criminal.”

Plaza plays Emily, a hard-working catering drone hungry for a better life. She earned a college degree in art, but a single blemish on her record hurts her career prospects.

(The revelation of what really happened is pure Hollywood screenwriter nonsense).

A tip leads her to a ring of petty criminals where she can finally earn real money. She’ll just have to peddle stolen credit cards for Youcef (the excellent-but-incredible Theo Rossi), a soft-spoken ringleader who doubles as a criminal mentor.

Will Emily learn that crime doesn’t pay? Are there romantic sparks between her and Youcef? Does writer/director John Patton Ford understand that it takes years of hard work for Americans to elevate their status in the workplace?

Emily’s descent into rule breaking offers a tragic arc ripe for drama. All it takes is one wrong choice to set off a series of events spiraling out of control.

Still, Ford suggests she’s the heroine here, fighting a corrupt system that demands that potential employees tell the truth and don’t behave like spoiled brats in job interviews.

Oh, and don’t accept gargantuan student loans if you have no credible plan to pay them back.

What “Emily the Criminal” does instead is make her journey fake enough to keep us from feeling her pain.


Her first attempts at crime give her every tangible clue that she made the wrong decision.

Neon signs are less subtle.

And Plaza plays Emily as a Jersey girl savvy enough to read said clues and act on them.

Alas, Plaza’s stellar performance can’t hide the film’s stubborn flaw. No smart, empowered woman would go on after enduring what is happening to our Emily.

Plaza’s work, especially early in the film, anchors the story. Watching Emily’s face sink as one opportunity after another slips away is a thing of beauty. Equally powerful is watching her react to big professional news from a friend, knowing that her own career takes years, if not decades, to reach such heights.

Then again, pursuing an artistic career means traveling the world can be a long time coming.

Ford doesn’t give a course per se, but the message it conveys is unmistakable. His greatest crime is not making Emily’s lineage credible. We’ve seen countless films where innocent people are drawn into a life of crime. We know it’s wrong, and so do they, but the thrills become too overwhelming to ignore.

“Emily” encounters pain, fear and modest rewards. Even her passion for art seems to wane as she sinks deeper into the life of crime.

The movie succumbs to Thriller 101 and Emily’s new skills don’t pass the smell test.

The Emily/Youcef connection never quite makes sense either. It’s written without a cascading sense of motivation, and knowing more about Youcef’s background muddies the story in a way that doesn’t help much.

The film’s resolution reveals the wobbly moral compass we suspected from the start. This applies to both our heroine and the underlying story.

Hit or miss: “Emily the Criminal” starts strong thanks to the excellent performance of Aubrey Plaza, but the story collapses under the weight of its own delusions.