At the last few Sundance Film Festivals, a running joke has developed about the ubiquity of Mark Duplass. It seems like if he’s not writing and directing an independent film with his brother Jay (Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home), he’s producing and/or starring in another. But while indie film fans may feel like they’ve gotten a handle on Duplass’s hipster vibe, his performance in Safety Not Guaranteed shows that he can be mysterious as well as funny, brooding as well as charming.
He plays the author of a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel. “Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed,” the ad reads. It promises payment upon return, and insists that it is not a joke. This guy—a paranoid grocery clerk named Kenneth—isn’t a mere prankster. He is either a genius, a madman or a double agent who concocted the perfect diversionary tactic. Duplass succeeds by continually keeping us guessing as to which is more likely.
Despite his untrusting nature, Kenneth isn’t impervious to human connection. He begins to form a close relationship with his only promising time-travel candidate, Darius (Aubrey Plaza). What he doesn’t know is that she’s an undercover magazine intern. We view this oddball from her point of view, struggling to find a clear-cut person behind the atrocious mullet and wild eyes.
A recent college grad with a hazy future, Darius gets an internship at a Seattle magazine and quickly goes from coffee runs to time-travel training. The magazine’s smarmiest writer, Jeff (Jake Johnson), talks his way into a trip to Ocean View, Wash., to investigate the ad’s backstory. He brings along two interns to do his work for him, Darius and the awkward Arnau (Karan Soni).
They track down Kenneth, who is not impressed with Jeff’s charm, and promptly informs him that he can’t have a seat on the time machine. But Darius catches him off guard by approaching him with the same suspicion that he shows the rest of the world. She soon starts training with him, and the two begin to bond.
Plaza has earned a reputation for her deadpan wisecracks on TV’s Parks and Recreation and supporting roles in various films. Safety Not Guaranteed lets her showcase her dramatic abilities on top of her comedic skills. She and Duplass work brilliantly off one another, performing a dance of passion and doubt. They give each other the will to embrace the madness, then begin to feel vulnerable and doubt themselves. The actors are adept at pulling humor from their scenes, but their greatest strength is the ability to let their characters’ fragility show. The story structure is well-worn, but the characters are refreshing.
The limited budget isn’t overly apparent, and the filmmakers often find charming solutions that jive with Kenneth’s DIY operation. In particular, the film’s riff on the old high-tech-building-break-in routine takes unexpected comedic turns while still delivering suspense. Rather than trying to beat Hollywood at its own game of high-tech gadgets and weaponry, director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly achieve a sly mix of the insane and the mundane.
The film falters a bit in its plotting, and goes on unnecessary detours with the supporting cast. Johnson plays a great jackass, and Soni is an able nerdy foil, but the subplots are everything subplots shouldn’t be—distractions from the main story that exist mainly to pad out the running time. Without grace or cunning, the screenplay goes straight for the most obvious time-travel analogies. Jeff only wanted to do this story so he could meet up with an old high school fling, and he tries to live vicariously by hooking his intern up with hot young girls. We get it—he’s trying to cling to the past. The only way it could be less subtle is if a voice-over came on and said, “When you think about it, in this crazy world, we’re all trying to travel through time.” Luckily, the cast is strong enough to get through the lesser scenes, and the film is consistently enjoyable.
Safety Not Guaranteed is based on an actual classified ad that went unexplained for a long time and developed into an Internet meme. But where the web found plenty of ironic mockery, the filmmakers have sought truths about human nature. Even better, they’ve found some.
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Derek Connolly
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin, Mary Lynn Rajskub
Release Date: June 8, 2012