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Shady stories for shady times

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 30, 2023 5:00 am

While Netflix has been cultivating its own cottage industry of true-crime series and docs, they also deliver a plethora of movies and series about everyday shady people, grifters, criminals, and the like.

Glad to see that one of the best series of the year, the surprisingly twisty and poignant Beef, has earned 13 noms for the upcoming Emmys, including for its two leads, Steven Yeun and Ali Wong.

Beef, created by Korean director Lee Sung Jin and set in a high-low Los Angeles twilight world of sketchy deals and simmering rage, starts with struggling contractor Danny Cho (Yeun) and high-strung businesswoman Amy Lau (Wong) having a near collision in a parking lot which quickly escalates to high-speed chases and raised middle fingers.

Steven Yeun as Danny who gets involved in a road-rage incident in Beef.

Part of the way Beef works is you don’t really know what’s going to happen. You think you do, but it switches up a lot of expectations. It’s determined not to fall into any Asian-American—or other—stereotypes. It’s not that Danny and Amy are terrible people, or beyond redemption, but they let their own personal desire for revenge nearly destroy their lives. In the process, the show reveals in 10 searing episodes a largely unseen glimpse of the American Dream.

For Danny, it’s any avenue that will get him away from a sense of personal failure—as his parents’ motel business has been destroyed by a thieving cousin (played by artist David Choe)—while trying to motivate his younger, even more rootless brother Paul (Young Manzino). In a sense, Danny is trying to activate fairly traditional Asian values within himself: honoring his parents, being a mentor to his younger sibling, helping his kinfolk. But all these goals are scrambled up as he first tracks down Amy’s license plate number and then starts a game of tit-for-tat with her that goes way off the rails.

Up in your grill: Steven Yeun and Ali Wong face off in Beef.

Once Amy activates her inner Ali Wong, you know you’re in for a wild ride. (An early steamy scene involves Amy’s personal handgun fetish, which is hilariously weird and very on-brand.) Amy feels pressure as the smart, hardworking breadwinner who’s about to sell her candle business to a rich but shady owner of a home improvement store chain (played by Maria Bello). Her stay-at-home sculptor husband George Nakai (Joseph Lee) makes pieces that no one buys, and offers placid advice about meditating that only infuriates the harassed Amy.

Yeun, fresh from Minari and better here than ever, develops Danny into an actual character, not just a caricature of failure or rage. His evolution comes from inserting himself, randomly, into a local Korean Christian church, where he soon becomes the alpha dog (playing an acoustic version of the Incubus emo ballad Drive to an impressed congregation); then even that path to redemption is bespoiled by shady deals and encroaching economic pressures.

Ali Wong as Amy in Beef

Amy starts to see that her own cultivated family life is coming apart, built on layers of lies and blackmail and sketchy in-laws. It all gets very weird and complicated, but never completely unbelievable. Yeun and Wong are a top-notch team together, whether trying to burn each other to the ground or inadvertently helping each other up. And the writing reveals some deeper truths about connection, empathy, stepping inside someone else’s skin (almost literally) and leaves us on a note of ambiguity that the hope-inclined viewer might cling to as revelation or redemption.

Aubrey Plaza has herself taken a few weird pathways to fame and recognition. A perennial prankster, her deadma look and withering sarcasm mask a subversive creative streak. Whether it’s Parks and Recreation’s April, or foulmouthed turns in Scott Pilgrim Saves the World and Dirty Grandpa, Plaza has been about playing a sketch of a character. It wasn’t until a fully-formed role in The White Lotus, and 2022’s Emily the Criminal, that she showed her true range.

Aubrey Plaza plays a credit card schemer in Emily the Criminal.

In Emily the Criminal she plays Emily Benetto, another LA dweller who, like Danny, is deep in debt and trying to stay afloat. Working for a catering company, she wears that perpetual hollowed-out gig worker expression, until a co-worker tells her how to make quick bucks by using fake credit cards in local electronics and appliance stores, then selling off the stolen merch from the trunk of her car. The credit card scam goes so well for her that Emily starts to believe crime might be her true vocation in life.

The crime thriller directed by John Patton Ford goes into that particular twilight area of thieves, con artists, and dead-eyed crooks that Beef circulates among as well, though it’s more hard-nosed and unforgiving. More noir.

Theo Rossi and Aubrey Plaza in the movie “Emily the Criminal.”

Plaza, largely deadpan in the film, lets herself react to each situation. But this time, instead of busting out a snarky comment, we see her calculating the odds, sizing up each situation with a world-weary gaze. When some prospective “customers” for her stolen goods come to her front door and rob her of everything, she doesn’t take it lying down; she tracks them down, busts through their car window, and gets her stake money back. Boom.

The realistic tone reminds me of ‘70s crime capers like Straight Time, the Dustin Hoffman neo-noir about a newly released convict who can’t seem to work within the system and clean his act up. We’re led to believe that a minor criminal record in Emily’s past prevents her from seeking white-collar employment anywhere (as though white-collar industries are free of crime of the white-collar variety); but by the end, we have to concede that she just might have a real knack for shadiness. And that’s part of the real world we live in these days.

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Beef and Emily the Criminal are on Netflix.