Movie review: “Safety Not Guaranteed”

By Columbus Alive
From the June 28, 2012 edition

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time?

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a hilarious and heartfelt tale about how we’d all like to go back in time and erase the loneliness and regret that can plague our lives.

A film inspired by an actual classified ad seeking a time-traveling partner — “Must bring your own weapons” — is not necessarily the most ideal premise. But damn does it work, thanks to the careful work by big-screen first-timers Derek Connolly (writer) and Colin Trevorrow (director).

A trio of television up-and-comers — Aubrey Plaza (“Parks & Recreation”), Mark Duplass (“The League”) and Jake Johnson (“New Girl”) — are mildly recognizable commodities. Duplass isn’t really a newcomer to those familiar with indie films; he’s the writer/director behind “The Puffy Chair,” “Cyrus,” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”

Duplass drives the narrative here as Kenneth, the man who posted the classified ad looking for someone to travel back in time with him. The ad sparks the interest of Seattle Weekly reporter Jeff (Johnson). Jeff feels there’s a story behind the ad, and he pitches it to his editors with just enough gusto to wrangle “the lesbian and the Indian” interns, Darius (Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), for help.

While Darius is an office peon and loner who still lives at home, her role as the unwitting hero of “Safety Not Guaranteed” couldn’t be more crucial. I know this is a little indie flick that will be completely forgotten by the time awards season rolls around, but this is Plaza’s breakout role.

Her performance as the sardonic yet vulnerable Darius couldn’t be better. Plaza absolutely nails the girl-grasping-for-something-great-while-pushing-it-away-with-the-other-hand idea, and it’s utterly heartbreaking at times. She also offers the April snark “Parks & Recreation” fans know so well, but it mostly is just her tough exterior.

Darius becomes intrigued by Kenneth’s combination of sad yet optimistic oddballness while doing most of the “investigative reporting” for Jeff’s feature, and the narrative literally takes flight. Duplass’ subtle, uncomfortable humor (it’s what Zach Galifianakis wishes he could do) is well balanced by Plaza’s sincerity. I could watch this twosome banter for hours.

The most pleasant surprise of the film is Johnson’s Jeff. The character isn’t as well-constructed as Kenneth or Darius are, but his arc becomes a wonderful little side plot. Jeff is your basic materialistic horn-dog — the main reason he wants to write the piece on Kenneth is because it offers the chance to check on a hottie he hooked up with years ago — but Johnson plays it with enough charm and humor that you root for him anyway.

There are big-budget summer movies out right now that will be grabbing people’s attention, and Wes Anderson’s latest, “Moonrise Kingdom,” is a direct competitor audience-wise, but don’t skip this movie. The superb screenwriting and endearing performance make “Safety Not Guaranteed” a guaranteed winner.