By Nathan Peterson
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
As a part-time film ‘snob’, there is nothing more satisfying than finding a film that goes under the radar, and being part of an exclusive club of people who get the chance to see something before it get’s famous.
That happened last year when I was lucky enough to get to see the comedy/drama Safety Not Guaranteed, the most notable film to date from erstwhile-Star-Wars-Episode-VII-linked director Colin Trevorrow.
The film follows Darius (Plaza), an angsty young intern at a Seattle magazine who is sent on assignment with Jeff (Johnson) to write an article about an intriguing advert in a local newspaper, and the man who posted it. The advert reads:
“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
Using the assignment as a way of escaping her life, Darius follows Jeff and fellow intern Arnau (Soni) to a seaside resort to investigate further. Before too long, the group find that the advert was placed by a man named Kenneth (Duplass) and try to gain his trust to discover the truth behind his advertisement. Is Kenneth a practical joker or does he have mental issues? Does he truly believe he can time travel? Is there more to Kenneth than meets the eye?
And that is where I will leave you with the synopsis. Sometimes a film needs to be enjoyed without having too much knowledge up front. Whilst I wouldn’t say that Safety Not Guaranteed is a rollercoaster of a film filled with unforeseen twists and turns, I don’t want to divulge too much information so as not to spoil the story.
As a comedy actor, Jake Johnson is definitely one to look out for. Most notable for his role in New Girl, he continues his fine form into Safety Not Guaranteed, where it could be argued he plays the same character. At the tender age of 34, he successfully manages to portray a weathered and fatigued reporter who cares more about himself than the story. It can’t be long before Johnson get’s the right role at the right time and becomes a household name. Think, disillusioned Paul Rudd.
Duplass as the mysterious Kenneth is also fantastic, breathing life into a character who you would want nothing to do with and yet feel complete empathy for the whole time. In some ways, his character is comparable to Alan from The Hangover, but on a much more real level that doesn’t (always) involve over the top comedy. But what Duplass does well is counteracting every comedy scene with one of underlying tragedy. You can tell that Kenneth’s state of mind may not just be physical, but also as a result of the actions of people around him.
But even with the top rate performances of Johnson and Duplass (and even Soni’s sheltered Arnau), this film belongs to Aubrey Plaza. For those who have seen Parks and Recreation, you will know her as the never-smiling April, and by God, does she have that moody, sulky, detached character down to a tee. What’s interesting here though is that whilst she starts off the film as someone tired of life, meeting the optimistic (albeit cagey) Duplass, set’s off a transformation in her that is beautiful to watch.
The relationship between Plaza and Duplass is touching and whilst you would never consider them as suitable romantically, there is an instant connection at some deep level that is clear to see. You cannot beat a film with two actors who have chemistry on-screen.
I could wax lyrical about Plaza all day, and I truly believe this is a girl headed to the top. Will she ever be an A-list Hollywood actress like Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie? Probably not, but then I don’t think that’s where her talents are best used. In recent years we have seen talented young actresses such as Ellen Page and Juno Temple venture into the big screen epics, but we all know they are destined to be Queens of the Indie films. Plaza can and will take her place on that roster in the next couple of years, I have no doubt.
Trevorrow’s direction is also worth discussing, as his fine work allows the strong performances to shine through, knowing just the right time to close up on the actors, and when to pull back to show the quirky and breathtaking scenery.
This is a film, clocking in at a very reasonable 86 minutes, that includes very little fat. Every scene is there for a purpose, even those that concentrate on the sub plots more than the main story. For example, running alongside the main story, we see that Jeff’s true motivation for taking the story is to try to reconnect with his high school sweetheart, and dealing with the consequences when the reality doesn’t live up to the dream. Does it further the main plot? Not at all, but does it offer a comparable cautionary tale, that is somewhat fitting? Yes.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a charming tale of what possibilities we open ourselves up for if we just see life a little less cynically. To date it has received a warm reception, and whilst it may not yet be widely known, it is well on it’s way to be becoming a cult hit as word of mouth spreads.
Filled with heartwarming relationships and moments of true comedy, I can guarantee you will enjoy yourself. Or your time back!
Rating: 4 out of 5
Did you know? – The advert that the story revolves around actually exists and was published in 1997 in the “Backwoods Home Magazine” as a joke by Senior Editor John Silveira.