Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

24 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Safety Not Guaranteed” takes a neat idea and uses it for an independent film that starts out as cynical as its characters (and as many other smart-aleck indie films I’ve seen lately), but then turns into a pleasant, involving experience once the characters have become more involved in the mystery of the situation.

What is the situation, the neat idea? It’s a “classified” ad in a newspaper. And a most unusual one at that—it reads: “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You will get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”

How can you ignore an ad like that? You can’t help but be the least bit curious about the person who placed that ad in the paper. Sure, you wouldn’t actually try and track him or her down; you’d think about doing it, but you’d never actually do it. “Safety Not Guaranteed” plays that angle, as three Seattle magazine employees decide to track down and report on whoever placed that ad—is it a joke or is it for real?

The slacking reporter, named Jeff (Jake Johnson), volunteers to take this story and brings two interns with him to Ocean View, Washington. The interns are Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Sonl). Darius is a disillusioned college grad and Arnau is an Indian-American studious biology major. They all drive down to Ocean View to do some digging, but since Jeff is more focused on hooking up with a high-school girlfriend, the interns do most of the investigative work.

Finding the guy comes off as pretty easy—Darius and Arnau spy on the post office until someone opens the Box posted in the ad. The man who placed the ad is a mid-30s grocery clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Darius has her own simple way of approaching him—by answering his ad, convincing him that she’s the right one for him to “travel back in time with,” and find out what his deal is. It turns out that Kenneth is dead serious about time travel and Darius manages to get him to trust her because she’s quirky, aggressive, challenging, and quick. And as Darius finds out more about Kenneth, she finds herself more intrigued and fascinated and just wondering, just like us, what exactly is going to happen with this time travel plan.

Who is Kenneth? Why does he want to travel through time so bad? Why does he want a partner? Can he really create a time machine? Is that what’s going on in his secretive shed? Is there really someone following him, like he says? All of these questions aren’t given simple answers. There are some answers, mind you, but director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly handles them subtly and impeccably. But more importantly, they make us care for the characters involved. A crucial example is the scene in which Kenneth reveals why he wants to travel back in time—we can easily relate to his reasons.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” starts out as an oddball road comedy with these three diverse people looking to find something unusual. But once we get into Kenneth’s characterization, whatever it may be, and further into the sweet relationship that develops between Kenneth and Darius, the movie does become a more involving, more pleasant movie that deals with its characters and their situations in a paranoid and quirky yet intriguing and investing way.

Darius becomes less of a deadpan cynic and shows moments of vulnerability that really make us care about her. The same can be said for Jeff and Arnau. Jeff, in particular, starts out as a typical unlikeable jerk, looking to hook up and also to get Arnau laid before the trip is over, until we go through a subplot involving him and his old girlfriend (Jenica Bergera). When he notices that the years haven’t been kind to her, he still enjoys being with her and realizes that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Arnau becomes less of a stereotypical Indian-American sidekick and has his own life-changing moment as well. Actually, the whole movie could be like these three, particularly Darius—sardonic on the outside, sweet on the inside. It starts out as a grim, cynical indie flick and turns into a pleasurable story.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” can be seen as a star vehicle for Aubrey Plaza. Usually known for her deadpan-sarcastic, comic supporting roles on TV’s “Parks & Recreation,” as well as movies “Funny People” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Plaza tries a lead role this time and succeeds. She proves a real acting talent when she’s calmed down and displays a true sense of vulnerability.

Mark Duplass, as Kenneth, hits the right notes with his performance. He’s a misfit and an oddball, but also earnest and somewhat relatable. You can tell he means everything he’s saying and just want things to go well for him. Even when it seems like he’s possibly gone off his rocker, it’s hard not to empathize with him. What should also be noted is that not once does the movie make fun of him—even in the “training montage” in which Kenneth gets Darius prepared for their trip through time, we’re still with him instead of making fun of him. He’s taking this whole thing seriously, and we have to know if he’s on the right path.

Is time travel possible in this movie? I’m not saying. Though I can tell you this—“Safety Not Guaranteed” is not about time travel. It’s about right here, right now. It’s about these characters who become people we care about and these ideas that we’re fascinated by. The end result is quite satisfying—showing little, but leaving a lot to the imagination. I did not correctly guess the ending to “Safety Not Guaranteed” and I find myself thinking about what I’d just seen. As I continue to think about this movie, I find myself liking it more and more. That is the sign of a terrific movie.

NOTE: By the way, is it a coincidence that Darius resembles MTV’s “Daria?” Just askin’.

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