Aubrey Plaza: Queen of Noir

In ‘Emily The Criminal,’ she’s found her genre

Aubrey Plaza made her debut in ‘Parks and Recreation,’ but she was never really cut out to be a sitcom actor. She’s too dark, too weird, too deep, and, as it turns out, too talented. In the movie ‘Emily The Criminal,’ now streaming on Netflix, she achieves her perfect on-screen form. It’s a gritty little neo-noir about credit-card fraud, but the movie’s main purpose, and ultimate legacy, will be to establish Plaza as a master of a certain kind of role and picture. She can definitely carry a movie, and can definitely act.

Since Parks and Rec went off the air, Plaza wandered in the pop-culture wilderness a little bit. Her only headlining role was in 2017’s ‘Ingrid Goes West,’ a kind of ‘Single White Female’ for the Instagram age which, if you squint a little, presaged her turn in Emily the Criminal and probably cleared the way for that movie to happen. She featured prominently in the hit second season of The White Lotus in a sort-of femme fatale role, but that show was definitely an ensemble piece and flashier performances from Meghann Fahy, two Italian gals, and especially Jennifer Coolidge overshadowed her fine work.

There’s no one to block our view of Aubrey Plaza in Emily The Criminal. She is in every scene and is literally the entire movie. Plaza puts on the most believable Jersey accent since The Sopranos went off the air, even though the show takes place in L.A. Her Emily is awash in student debt, and unable to move up in society because of a college-era DUI conviction and also, we later learn, an altercation with an abusive boyfriend that put a mark on her record. So she shares a crummy apartment with Chinese immigrants and does dead-end Door Dash-style work to try and pay the bills, without any success.

Emily the Criminal is great at portraying the side of L.A. that we all know and love from classic noir, but also contemporizing it. There is no glamour present: just car lots, back rooms, concrete-and-steel apartment buildings, and big-box stores. Emily ends up falling in with, and on top of, a group of Armenian mobsters. These aren’t the type of people who run L.A. exactly, but they make up the backbone of its low-rent, mid-level underworld.

You can see Emily’s flop sweat and determination in Plaza’s every glance and gesture. She wants to do the right thing, but as it turns out, the right thing is the wrong thing. And she’s just just desperate enough to do the terrible violence she needs to do to get ahead. While Emily the Criminal isn’t an action movie, exactly, there are car cashes, and several gritty fights. It resembles the kinds of street-level crime dramas from the 1970s that film critics love, but audiences rarely see anymore.

But the difference is, though the writer and director are male, Plaza is the central focus and the producing force behind this movie. Emily is an actual criminal, a kind of female version of Walter White from Breaking Bad. The movie gives her a kind of yuppie way out of her card-fraud, low-level stolen goods fencing path. But her friend, the kind of urban yuppie who casually jets off to Portugal on business and says things like the local ramen place is “ruining my life,” can’t get her a job at her design firm. In a late-scene movie, the design firm’s head, also from New Jersey, offers Emily an unpaid internship. But Emily has to support herself. She, like most people in this world, can’t afford to work for free. So instead she turns to crime.

Obviously, Aubrey Plaza isn’t poor or working-class herself. She didn’t come from working-class parents and certainly isn’t working class now. But Emily the Criminal shows her very much in touch with a kind of gritty reality. You can buy her in this mode, just like you can buy a TV from the trunk of Emily’s car. In the 70s, a role like this would have gone to Al Pacino or Gene Hackman. And in the 2000s, it went to Bryan Cranston. Plaza probably isn’t quite in that league as an actor. But Emily the Criminal starts to build the case.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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