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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

Based on a real classified ad that took off as an internet meme, Safety Not Guaranteed is a time travel movie that is less about time travelling than about the personal baggage that might cause a person to yearn for the possibility.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a disaffected twenty-something intern at Seattle magazine. Persistently cheerless and pessimistic due to the violent death of her mother, Darius has few connections with other people. Mostly she finds them uninteresting or unworthy of her attention. But her ears perk up when staff writer Jeff (Jake M. Johson) pitches a story about a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel. Darius volunteers to go along for the ride, as does a bashful Indian-American student named Arnau (Karan Soni).

After some investigation, during which Darius reveals a real knack for reporting, the man who placed the ad is revealed to be grocery-store clerk Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass). Kenneth is obsessed with the possibility of time travel, and seems to be slightly cracked, mentally speaking, but his earnest good will and enthusiasm appeal to Darius. After Jeff fails to convince Kenneth he is actually interested in time travel, Darius steps up and manages to ingratiate herself to him, joining him for weapons training and learning the complex details of his plan.

A lot of the plot is downright absurd, but a strong script and stellar performances all around lift the story to unexpected heights. As written, the main quartet of characters are all revealed to be damaged individuals, stuck against their will in a present they have reason to rue. In what might seem a tacked-on side plot, Jeff’s reason for suggesting the story is revealed to be a ruse to drop in on an old girlfriend. Over the course of several scenes, this encounter serves to soften his brash, jaded character and become a nice companion to the scenes between Kenneth and Darius. In his own way, Jeff is attempting to travel back in time as well.

The movie soars to its highest highs when Duplass and Plaza share the screen. Duplass has such a tricky role that his naturalistic performance deserves immense credit. He is not a stock character nor is he merely a collection of tics and eccentricities. His Kenneth is a real person who has experienced real suffering and emerged from it worse for the wear. Meanwhile Plaza exquisitely portrays Darius’s hesitant loosening of her guard.

As the story progresses and Kenneth turns out to be more than he seems, the plot coalesces into a theme of sorts. Jeff’s experiences have instilled in him a desire to seize the day, which he imparts first on the terminally shy Arnau, and then watches as Darius is forced to decide whether to accept what the world tells her is true or to trust someone she truly cares for.

It would be counterproductive to spoil the ending here, but let me just say that it is a bold decision, and one that I am not sure I find supportable from the rest of the film. I have essentially decided, though, that it was thrilling enough to watch that I will let the movie get away with it.

I guarantee you’ll enjoy it, too.

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