Emily the Criminal is more evidence that Aubrey Plaza is so talented, it oughta be illegal

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Hot on the heels of The White Lotus, discover another revelatory Aubrey Plaza performance in Emily the Criminal – streaming on Neon. Dominic Corry celebrates career highlights from the increasingly versatile performer.

Aubrey Plaza’s breakout role in Parks & Recreation (which began in 2009) was one of her first professional acting jobs, and she certainly made an impact. Armed with an unaffected demeanor that occasionally morphed into a death stare for the ages, she was a perfect avatar for the eye-rolling, sardonic comedic sensibility that prevailed in the late noughties.

Although her character on that show, April Ludgate, revealed layers over time, it was easy to come away from Parks & Rec with the impression that coy impudence was all Plaza could do. As good as she was as it, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking there wasn’t much more in her reportoire.

It’s taken some time, but by now Plaza has well and truly displayed her versatility as an actor (and producer), and she reached new heights with her strongest performance yet, that of the title character in the stellar gig economy thriller Emily the Criminal.

I first noticed Plaza in the indie comedy Mystery Team, which also starred the similarly about-to-be-famous-thanks-to-a-sitcom Donald Glover. Prior to that, Plaza, a former NBC page (i.e. intern who gives tours, ala Kenneth in 30 Rock), had a small role as….an NBC page in…the first season of 30 Rock. Which Donald Glover was a writer on. It’s all connected.

Amongst a cast stacked with standouts, Plaza made her presence known on Parks & Recreation, and was soon tapped by notable directors such as Judd Apatow, Edgar Wright and Whit Stillman for meaty supporting roles as seen in Funny People, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World (whose star she apparently almost married) and Damsels in Distress, respectively. She subsequently garnered arguably her first cinematic leading role in the well-received time travel-themed indie Safety Not Guaranteed, which came out in 2012, and showcased the warmer side of her personality.

The first film to be structured around Plaza was the quickly forgotten virginity-losing comedy The To Do List. She then gave memorable performances in zombie comedy Life After Beth (whose writer/director she did marry), Robert De Niro comedy Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Both of those last two were opposite Zac Efron, truly the male Aubrey Plaza.

By now Parks & Rec was in the rear view, but it remained the project and persona audiences mostly associated with Plaza. It was almost as if her huge early visibility as such a specific character was working against her. But Plaza was just beginning to ramp things up, and her next performance was one that made me look at her in a whole new light.

In the amazing 2017 comedy-drama Ingrid Goes West, Plaza plays a slightly troubled young woman who becomes obsessed with an LA-based Instagram influencer (Elizabeth Olsen). It’s an insidiously hilarious exercise that manages to be both funny and insightful about social media, which is something many films have unsuccessfully attempted.

Indeed, five years after its release, Ingrid Goes West stands the most astute and biting distillation of social media bullshit in the cinematic realm. Although far from a hit, the film seemed to open up a some new paths for Plaza, who drifted even further away from April with culty movies like An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn and Black Bear.

She also surprised with against-type turns in TV shows Criminal Minds (as a serial killer!) and Legion, then had audences swooning and rooting for her character in the lesbian romantic dramedy Happiest Season.

Which pretty much brings us to Emily the Criminal, and a performance unlike we’d ever seen from Plaza.

As the titular college graduate, Plaza (eventually) displays a sense of resolve and grit that is very exciting to watch. It’s almost like the film knows we expect Emily to sass away her problems like April, and revels in not doing that. Emily is a looong way from April.

When we meet Emily, she is living in LA and over-encumbered by student debt that her catering delivery “job” fails to service. She agrees to a one-off money-making opportunity that involves purchasing high-end appliances with a cloned credit card and is intrigued by how easy the scam is, getting in deeper with the low level criminals who oversee it.

What happens next is a bit more complicated than “it all goes wrong”—Emily is always in control of her fate, and Plaza is a revelation in the role. I found her genuinely scary at times, and she is amazing at embodying a kind of desperation that economic insecurity might lead to.

You get just a hint of what Plaza achieves with the role in the below scene, which has (understandably) had some viral traction. It’s from early in the film, when Emily is interviewing for a coveted job at a design firm. Her friend hooked up the interview, but failed to inform Emily that the position is unpaid, and she is expected to be grateful for the opportunity.


It’s absolutely Plaza’s most invigorating performance since Ingrid Goes West, and set the stage for her an exciting new phase in her career, one that proved immediately fruitful with further revelatory work in season two of The White Lotus at the end of last year.

If you’ve been following Plaza all along, or only just got onboard thanks to The White Lotus, Emily the Criminal is a must-stream.