Saturday, July 21, 2012

Movie Review: Safety Not Guaranteed

Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni

One of the best indie films of 2012 is also likely one that few audiences will see, due to its very limited theatrical release -- which is shame since Safety Not Guaranteed is a fresh and imaginative film that isn't afraid to take narrative risks.

Seattle-based reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) pitches a story to his editors after coming across a bizarre ad in the classifieds section of a small newspaper. The ad seeks a companion for a time travel expedition, cautioning readers that they "must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." Jeff sets off on a road trip to interview the writer of the mysterious ad with the help of interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni). The man behind the ad turns out to be relatively easy to track down: His name is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an unremarkable 30-something grocery store clerk who lives in a ramshackle house in the middle of the woods. When Jeff's attempts to convince Kenneth that he wants to join him on his time travel mission backfires, Darius steps in and successfully convinces the reclusive Kenneth that she has her own important reasons for wanting to go back in time. Is Kenneth for real or is he mentally unbalanced? As Darius' unexpected friendship with Kenneth becomes stronger, the more she finds it difficult to reveal the truth about her actual intentions.

First-time director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly have concocted a sweet, unpredictable and and character-driven comedy that also takes its subject matter seriously, right down to its time travel theory. Its not necessarily about whether or not Kenneth's time travel machine actually works, it's about how people interact with one another and how, deep down, we all ultimately want someone to accompany us on life's adventures.
Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni and Jake M. Johnson
Even the subplots involving Jeff and Arnau, which at first appear to be anecdotal diversions to break up the scenes between Kenneth and Darius, actually reveal themselves to be essential to both the narrative and the development of their characters. It's only after Jeff successfully tracks down an old girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) and pushes Arnau to enjoy his 20s and come out of his shell that we realize he's doing his own sort of time travel -- one that allows him to relive his lost youth, however briefly. 

The performances are all sensitive portrayals of very real people supplanted in a sort of science-fiction fantasy. Johnson's Jeff evolves from arrogant and shallow into a vulnerable adult who looks back on his past with both nostalgia and regret. As the shy, introverted Arnau, Soni is perfect foil to Johnson. While at first he comes across as a bit of an Indian-American stereotype, his character ultimately emerges from his shell to embrace the world around him.

In the lead role of Darius, Plaza ably carries the majority of the film on her shoulders, balancing her dry sarcasm with a soft, sensitive side just waiting to reveal itself to the right person. She's a star on the rise and her performance is a thoughtful, intelligent interpretation of a young woman on the verge of discovering herself and falling in love for the first time.

However, it is Duplass, in the most challenging role, that is the true revelation. His Kenneth could potentially suffer from paranoia, or even schizophrenia; yet, as the film progresses, we see that he's a vulnerable, gentle "everyman" who is more than just a bunch of bizarre explanations of time travel theory and Star Wars action figures. It's a subtle, moving performance grounded in reality and the majority of the film's success lies in his ability to make Kenneth a strangely endearing person. 

The evident chemistry between Plaza and Duplass allows Safety Not Guaranteed to soar even higher. Their blossoming romance and witty banter leave you wishing that they would appear in every single frame of the film. The perfect, open-ended conclusion only further demonstrates how capably Safety Not Guaranteed handles its tonal shifts and merges fantasy and reality.