I consider myself an Aubrey Plaza fan, but the truth is, that comes mostly from her appearances on talk shows.I've seen a few movies that she is in, although she's never the main character. I didn't watch Parks and Recreations. I liked her in Legion, but I didn't care for the show and didn't watch past the first season. So it's not that I came to Emily the Criminal cold, but I was interested in seeing what Plaza would do with a leading role. (She is the title character.)
She is terrific. The movie would be OK without her, but she raises the level of the film. It's a good thing, since she is in (almost?) every scene, and first-time director John Patton Ford loves close-ups. (At first, I thought he was just infatuated with Plaza, but then I noticed everyone got lots of close-ups.) Plaza has a unique trick ... her signature is her deadpan face, which is great for comedy, but here, she manages to convey a series of emotions, even though her facial expressions don't often change.Ford's plot isn't exactly groundbreaking ... person who is drowning in debt turns to crime ... but he gives us an economical movie (95 minutes) that includes an increasingly tense series of scenes, as Emily gets deeper into her life as a criminal. Plaza makes the scenario seem believable, and she also seems to have the emotional strength to get her through some scary moments (Plaza isn't very big physically, she's not going to threaten anyone in that manner, but she is intimidating when she needs to be). Much is made of how timely the script is, and while I can't imagine anyone stretching an analysis of Emily the Criminal into an honors thesis, you could get a decent 5-page paper out of it. Between the massive student loan debt and the misery of Emily's job (only barely better than a delivery gig), you get a feel for how desperate it can be for younger people in 2022. Ford doesn't push too hard on this, but he doesn't really need to. It's there, and that's enough for an action movie that is ultimately more a character study. And Plaza's performance is worthy of note.