crime can pay, sometimes – it doesn’t work to play by the rules.
This is the situation AubreyPlaza is found as the title character in Emily the criminalin theaters August 12.
Emily is an artist who dropped out of college when her family needed her but is still saddled with student loans. She also has a crime on her record for assaulting a then-boyfriend in another failed attempt to improve her life (about the assault, she says her mistake didn’t go further and didn’t really make him afraid of her, so he didn’t squeeze fees).
That combination of a criminal record, stifling student loans, and no degree means she’s stuck in the gig economy as she watches the life of her happier best friend and art student Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) take off. Only colleague Javier (Bernardo Badillo) connects her with a criminal enterprise Emily’s life is finally picking up speed.
It’s not just about having some cash and the freedom that comes with her new gig. Crime suits Emily and awakens something ruthless and strong in her. It makes them come alive in a way that trying to follow the rules never did.
AubreyPlaza delivers a strong performance. She slowly changes throughout the film, leaning into her presence, power, and sexuality as her time on screen increases.
The Puerto Rican and Irish-English plaza rose to fame as the stubborn April Ludgate on NBC Parks and Recreation. Now, more than a decade later, she’s pushing the limits of who she can play and to what effect. Here with Emily, there’s a bit of her comedic background and a lot more nuance.
It’s unclear if the fair-skinned Emily is Latina. Her last name, Benetto, is Italian. She speaks English with an awkwardly mocked New Jersey accent. But her Spanish is crystal clear and she dreams of traveling to South America. Javier is certainly Latino, and best friend Liz is black, which maybe makes Emily the poor little white girl whose fortune should have been better.
So the racial politics of the film is messed up. But the criticism of capitalism is strong.
Everywhere she goes, Emily is labeled inferior, sometimes invisible, sometimes a criminal. The film begins with her trying to get a job at a doctor’s office. The white interviewer lies to her about what he knows about her criminal record, and she heats up when his ruse works. She eventually storms out and then has to go to her job as a grocer, where customers pretend she’s invisible and her boss reminds her that as an independent contractor, she has no rights, no union, and no protection
It’s worth noting that between these two men, the white man seems to have a fairly comfortable office job, while the black man is stuck in a basement just a step above the Emilys and Javiers he oversees – a clear statement of race and Class.
As the film progresses, Emily fully understands her place in the world and her opposition to those in charge of the economy becomes more energetic and fun. She is right!
Take on the role later in the film, where she realizes that the “job” she’s interviewing for is actually an unpaid internship, aka the ultimate American corporate scam. She storms out of this interview too, but not before reading the riot plot to her white employer wannabe, played by the perfect cast Gina Gerschon. This boss tries to pretend that her mere presence in the male-dominated advertising industry gives her the right to treat her employees in any way, but Emily gets none of it. What good is power if you don’t try to use it to change the game?
With these options, Emily decides to crack down on the credit card fraud scheme she finds herself in, and her choice makes perfect sense. She’s tried everything else and gotten nowhere. Besides, she’s treated like a criminal so often, she might as well be one, right?
And while crime films abound, it’s rare that one focuses on a woman and delights in her breaking the law. In the end, Emily is neither a fallen woman nor a cautionary tale – she is a (crime) boss living her dream. Though she faces some consequences, the film is a clear celebration of her choices.
Some might object – credit card fraud clearly doesn’t contribute much to society – but it’s nice to see a Latina antihero ready to burn it all down. And Aubrey Plaza is certainly up to the task.
writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is co-founder of latinamedia.co, which elevates Latina and gender-nonconforming Latinx perspectives in media. She is a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade