Breakout Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed is a slight but winning indie comedy with sci-fi trappings which stars deadpan actress Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) in her first lead role, alongside mumblecore fixture Mark Duplass (Your Sister’s Sister) and rising comedy actor Jake Johnson (New Girl). All three give outstanding performances and with any luck this film will do wonders for their respective careers, as well as those of the impressive first-time filmmakers.
Safety Not Guaranteed was inspired by — and takes its title from — a joke classified ad that appeared in a 1997 copy of Backwoods Home Magazine and subsequently went viral. It read:
“Wanted: Somebody 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.”
Plaza stars as Darius, a disillusioned college graduate (“I expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up”) who interns for a Seattle magazine and lives at home with her widower father (Jeff Garlin). When a cynical reporter, Jeff (Johnson), pitches a “tongue-in-cheek investigation” of the time travel story to their bitchy boss Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub), Darius is instantly intrigued and volunteers to join him and another intern — the studious Arnau (Karan Soni) — on a trip to the seaside community of Ocean View, WA. While the preening, Joel McHale-esque Jeff quickly becomes distracted chasing down an old flame (Jenica Bergere), Darius goes about tracking down the person behind the ad. Kenneth (Duplass, with some awful fashion sense and a mullet) works at a local grocery store and rants about quantum physics to his co-workers, and Darius approaches him about the ad in an attempt to win his confidence and find out if he’s for real. Although initially skeptical and playing along for the sake of the ruse, Darius soon finds herself charmed by Kenneth’s man-child eccentricities, and when it turns out that some of his paranoia is founded — as revelations come to light via an old girlfriend (Kristen Bell) and a pair of government agents — she becomes torn between her responsibilities to the story and Kenneth’s fantastical plan.
Although this kind of quirky concept paired with such geeky characters could easily come off as a little twee, writer Derek Connolly — who won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — and director Colin Trevorrow successfully ensure that Safety Not Guaranteed is always heartfelt and humourous, but never relies on cheap laughs. The film has a few rough edges and tonal shifts, but they are made insignificant by the outstanding central performances. At first Darius seems a little too similar to Plaza’s snarky, scene-stealing Parks and Recreation character April, but she gradually warms and shows us a sensitive side we haven’t seen before. For his part, Duplass dials down his charisma (see also: The League, Humpday) and gives us a wounded, laughably serious and sincere man stuck in the past, and it is easily one of his best performances yet. Johnson has had a good year with a memorable turn in 21 Jump Street as well as a key role in the popular (and insufferable) sitcom New Girl, but his hilarious, poignant and crucial supporting role as Jeff is the best we’ve seen him, and I’m looking forward to watching him branch out from here.
The unlikeliness of Safety Not Guaranteed and its success makes it all the more enjoyable. Seemingly a fusion of Amblin Entertainment‘s ’80s works of magic realism (E.T., Back to the Future, Innerspace, *batteries not included) and the recent mumblecore movement (the Duplass brothers are executive producers), the modest film has every reason not to work, but through the ingenuity of a couple of first-time filmmakers and their talented and committed cast it is one of the most pleasantly surprising and endearing films of the year. Anyone looking for a high concept, intellectual time travel yarn will obviously be better off with Looper, but for everyone else this comedic, romantic, unpredictable and charming sci-fi-tinged indie will leave you grinning from ear to ear.
Safety Not Guaranteed is out in New Zealand cinemas this week. If you would like to win tickets, enter the competition here. Watch the trailer below.