‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ with Aubrey Plaza is Delightful Journey

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CHICAGO – I love “Safety Not Guaranteed.” It reminds me of films of my youth – the sci-fi/dramedy hits of directors like Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, and Steven Spielberg – that gifted viewers with wonderful characters with which we could identify. The set-up may be ridiculous but as long as we feel grounded with the people within it, we’ll go along with anything. This is something that’s been lost over the years and writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow have found in their delicate, lovely film.

One of the reasons that “Safety Not Guaranteed” is so delightful is that the set-up is borderline ludicrous. It’s a tightrope act. When one thinks of the myriad of ways a film like this one could have gone wrong, it makes the fact that it doesn’t that much more admirable. In the hands of so many other filmmakers and with other casts, this could have been generic mocking of the dreams of outsiders or, even worse, a wacky slapstick comedy about time travel. Instead it’s a character-driven piece about regret and true partnership – our basic, primal need for someone to take the journey with us even if safety is not guaranteed.

Safety Not Guaranteed
Safety Not Guaranteed
Photo credit: Film District

It starts with a classified ad – “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.” An egocentric magazine writer named Jeff (Jake Johnson of “New Girl”) thinks the ad could make an interesting starting point for a story and brings along two interns – Darius (Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation”) and Arnau (Karan Soni). What is this guy all about? Is he just another weirdo? Or could he be the kind of eccentric that magazine articles love to profile?

He turns out to be both and neither. The team goes to Ocean View, Washington to find a grocery clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass, who also stars in this week’s “Your Sister’s Sister”), a guy who clearly has a unique view of the world but also isn’t your typical movie wacko. Kenneth firmly believes in what he’s planning to the point that he’s willing to break into a local laboratory for the parts he needs. After an abrasive encounter with Jeff, Darius goes in for the story and ends up getting closer and closer to this man. Like Kenneth, Darius has regret over a major incident in her past. What if you COULD go back and correct the day that you feel everything changed? Would you take that trip? Wouldn’t you at least go along for the ride with the guy who thinks it’s possible?

Safety Not Guaranteed
Safety Not Guaranteed
Photo credit: Film District

It’s here where “Safety Not Guaranteed” goes from interesting to brilliant because Trevorrow and Connolly take the opposite fork in the road from most writers and directors. For most filmmakers, “SNG” would become ALL about the time travel, hidden pasts, and unanswered questions. It would be little more than a film about whether or not Kenneth is crazy and we’d sit there questioning how his journey could end happily. In remarkable ways, “Safety Not Guaranteed” becomes more about the characters and less about the science fiction. Connolly & Trevorrow take wonderful side journeys like scenes in which Jeff tries to get Arnau laid or an entire subplot about Jeff reuniting with a girl from his past (Jenica Bergere). Even that arc starts clichéd and becomes something completely unexpected. “Safety Not Guaranteed” becomes that incredibly rare thing – character-driven sci-fi.

It helps that Trevorrow directs one of the best performances of the year from the spectacular Aubrey Plaza. While she’s been good before on “Parks and Recreation” and in movies like “Mystery Team” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” this is easily her best work to date, displaying a range that I think will truly stun some viewers. She completely gets and grounds Darius, a girl who, like Kenneth, has had difficulty following the well-worn path of life. But she doesn’t overplay the outsider. We’ve all known girls like Darius but they’ve rarely been so three-dimensionally represented in film. She’s great. (For the record, Duplass and Johnson are excellent as well but the movie really belongs to Plaza.)

As “Safety Not Guaranteed” hurtled toward its ending, I had two thoughts. One, I wondered how on Earth they could pull this off since it felt like they had started to write themselves into a corner. Not only do they write themselves out of that corner but they do so in ways that show the courage of filmmaking conviction that separates great writers from just decent ones. Two, I had the thought that I was going to miss Darius & Kenneth. Their story is one of the most memorable ones of the year to date.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” stars Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, and Jenica Bergere. It was written by Derek Connolly and directed by Colin Trevorrow. It opens on June 15, 2012.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

ziggy one of the best's picture

Safety not guaranteed

Its’ was by far one of the funnish movie I’ve seen in a long time we see there people trying to figure this guy out and see if he’s for real or not

Manny be down's picture

Safety not guaranteed

Weird kind of comedy that I enjoyed they are looking for this guy who can take them back to the furure but the friend ship and truct that the girl has for him lto her loving him

Al Bedo's picture

Loved the approach to belief

Loved the approach to belief in the possibility of time travel. Reminds me in that way of the Spanish film, Time Crime, where the possible human consequences are of more significance to the story than the whiz-bang of the science fiction. WILL see it again, as I walked in five minutes into the film, and want to see it beginning-to-end. I’d give it 4/5.

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