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“WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322, Oakview, CA 93022 You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
In this unlikely—and not remotely serious—classified ad taken out 15 years ago in Backwoods Home Magazine, director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly saw a movie. Well, to be more accurate, they saw a movie in the alternate universe where the guy who wrote this ad (which, years later, turned into a monster internet meme) was completely genuine.
While a classified ad might seem like an unlikely source for a film, Safety Not Guaranteed embraces its premise and runs with it in surprising directions. Yes, this is a film about a goofy guy who’s looking for a partner to time travel with, but there’s a lot more going on. It treats its characters earnestly and explores their respective searches for love with sincerity and some good-natured ribbing. Safety Not Guaranteed is a comedy, after all, but it isn’t one that will likely have you rolling in the aisles. Humor, instead, arises because you care about these people just as much as their quests to get laid and — er — steal some lasers.
So who are these wacky people? Our heroine is Darius (Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza). She’s a melancholy college student interning at Seattle Magazine when a writer, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), pitches the idea to do a tongue-in-cheek profile of the guy who wrote this crazy classified ad. Jeff brings Darius and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), to the small Washington town the ad originated from, and the search begins. Jeff, however, is less interested in the piece as he is in a piece of ass in former flame Liz (Jenica Bergere), who’s filled out a bit since Jeff last saw her a dozen or so years ago, but whose roasted chicken and apple pie remain the best he’s ever tasted.
So it’s up to Darius to salvage this story, and it turns out tracking this guy down and earning his trust is easier than she expected. The mark’s name is Kenneth (Mark Duplass). He’s a grocery store clerk by day, time machine builder by night. From the outset, it’s clear the guy is off, but his level of eccentricity isn’t completely revealed until the film’s closing moments. The filmmakers throw out the possibility that he’s a for-real time traveler, and there are allusions to him maybe being some kind of government agent, but Darius simply sees him as Kenneth. And she’s just his Darius.
Their budding romance drives most of Safety Not Guaranteed, as Trevorrow elects to save the film’s big reveal for last. It’s hard to argue with either choice because the relationship stuff is strong, and the questions surrounding the veracity of Kenneth’s claims will keep you scratching your head throughout. Jeff and Arnau orbit Safety Not Guaranteed like satellites, popping up pleasantly to pad the film’s running time and give us a bit of a break from the potentially grating Kenneth. That said, their arcs never feel artificial, and they are the sources of some of the film’s funniest moments, especially the gloriously geeky Arnau, who’d much prefer to sit in the hotel on his Acer gaming computer than jet around town with the increasingly horny and determined Jeff.
Aubrey Plaza just owns her first real leading role and proves to be the perfect comedienne for material like this. Her deadpan delivery plays perfectly off the always-interesting Mark Duplass, whose Kenneth is easily one of 2012’s oddest and most memorable individuals. Jake Johnson and Karan Soni are less familiar, but they prove to be solid additions to the cast. And Jenica Bergere is luminous as Liz. If only she had a little more to do…
Its strong reception out of Sundance and SXSW all but guarantees Safety Not Guaranteed will emerge from the limited release ghetto this summer. Its original concept and dynamite execution should help ensure a long life beyond the summer, and hopefully, a Best Original Screenplay nomination come Oscar season. It’s one of the most enjoyable movies of the year so far, as well as one of the sweetest, most unusual and most surprising.