Title: Safety Not Guaranteed
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Jeff Garlin, Kristen Bell, Mary Lynn Rajskub
The Best Screenplay award winner at the Sundance Film Festival, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is an entertaining and endearing little seriocomic bauble that, while having a smidge of fun tweaking genre conventions and expectations, also richly mines for laughs the pained regret and fumbling desires of its characters in much the same manner as Alexander Payne. A movie of exquisite silver linings — which locates the humor in the swallowed ache of emotionally stunted men without ever selling out the legitimacy of their feelings — director Colin Trevorrow’s debut offering heralds a solid new talent on the indie film scene.
Needing a story, Seattle magazine writer Jeff (Jake Johnson, of “New Girl”) pitches his boss (Mary Lynn Rajskub) on tracking down the person responsible for a strange classified ad seeking someone to go back in time with the author, reading in part, “Must bring your own weapons, safety not guaranteed — I have only done this once before.” Given the go-ahead, Jeff snatches up two interns — Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a disillusioned live-at-home college grad, and the timid Arnau (Karan Soni), a studious biology major trying to diversify his resume — and sets out for the tiny seaside community of Ocean View, where the ad has a listed post office box number.
There, they discover Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), an eccentric and paranoid grocery store clerk who’s convinced he’s solved the riddle of time travel. The real impetus behind Jeff’s desire to hit the road turns out not to be the story on Kenneth, but instead an old… well, adolescent sexual conquest, Liz (Jenica Bergere). With Jeff spending his time pursuing her, the specifics of getting the actual journalistic scoop fall mostly to Darius, who slowly gains Kenneth’s trust. In the process, she finds herself becoming decidedly intrigued with his nerdy survivalist ways, and the fact that, Kenneth’s weirdness notwithstanding, people really do seem to be following him.
As penned by Derek Connolly and directed by fellow New York University graduate Trevorrow, who met while interning together at “Saturday Night Live,” the film is a beguiling combination of pin-prick comedy (Darius is told she’s “not a quality hire” by a restaurant manager after a painfully blunt interview) and kind of melancholic character notes. There’s a breezy, lightweight quality to a lot of the movie’s banter, but it never seems false or out-of-step with the characterizations, which are actually quite nicely sketched, and deepen with time. As Darius and Kenneth kind of trip and fumble toward something approaching romantic bloom, and the movie flits about the edges of the grander sci-fi fantasy its conceit suggests, Jeff’s blossoming disillusionment and unhappiness is rendered in contrast to Darius’ emotional thawing.
Duplass, kind of jittery and guarded, nicely captures both the hurt and hope in Kenneth (who will only say that his mission involves “mistakes, regret and love”), and Johnson delivers a winning turn as a man-child who finally if improbably seems to discover the tools that might enable him to grow up. If not for all its other considerable pleasures, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is also, at the very least, a winning feature showcase for Plaza, an ensemble player on “Parks and Recreation” whose sardonic wit is here, for perhaps the first time, leavened with grace notes of vulnerability and longing. It’s the look of someone who wants more, and is realizing that she’s capable of it, and it’s a look that suits both the character of Darius and Plaza herself.
NOTE: “Safety Not Guaranteed” expands from Los Angeles and New York this week, and will continue to open in new markets throughout the month and early summer.
Written by: Brent Simon