“Safety Not Guaranteed” is just about everything you’d want in a summer movie, combining elements of romance, science fiction and comedy juiced with an element of frat-boy attitude. Best of all, it stars Aubrey Plaza.
Wanted. Quirky flick taking advantage of Aubrey Plaza’s endless charm and charisma. Humor and heart a must. Sundance experience a plus. Will travel to see. Send responses to local theaters in care of Cranky Critic.
So far, there’s been but one reply to my advertisement, but what a candidate “Safety Not Guaranteed” has proven to be. It’s just about everything you’d want in a summer movie, combining elements of romance, science fiction and comedy juiced with an element of frat-boy attitude. Best of all, it stars Ms. Plaza, the unconventional beauty with the big eyes and even bigger talent. For years, she’s been flirting with stardom in scene-stealing supporting roles in everything from Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” to TV’s “Parks and Recreation.” But few could have foreseen her dazzling breakout performance in “Safety,” a Sundance award-winner in which she solidly states her case as America’s next sweetheart.
Devoid of the icy aloofness of reigning rom-com queens like Katherine Heigl and Reese Witherspoon, Plaza wins hearts and minds with her approachable, every-woman appeal and intelligence. And those qualities serve her well in seducing audiences as Darius Britt, a jaded cynic who’s lost her spark. Weighted down by a family tragedy and a sluggish job market, she’s sleepwalking through life working as a gofer intern at Seattle Magazine. Fate intervenes when a staff writer pitches a story about a guy who placed an ad in nearby Ocean View seeking a person to accompany him on a trip back in time, noting that applicants “must bring their own weapons” and “safety not guaranteed.” The reporter, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson from TV’s “New Girl”), a cocky wise guy, figures the “time traveler” will be rife for mockery. But his real incentive for heading off to scenic Ocean View is an old flame (Jenica Bergere) he plans to seek out while his two interns, Darius and another recent college grad, nerdy Arnau (expressive newcomer Karan Soni), do the leg work for the article. Besides, he figures, a hot honey like Darius will do a far better job drawing out a paranoid recluse like Mark Duplass’ Kenneth than he ever could.
Thus the wheels are set in motion for a double dose of romantic machinations between Johnson and Bergere and Plaza and Duplass. In other words, two rom-coms in one. Surprisingly, both strands work to maximum appeal, with neither unfolding quite the way you’d expect. And it’s that constant element of surprise that keeps “Safety Not Guaranteed” from falling into the usual rom-com traps. Instead of the familiar formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, the first-time filmmaking team of writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow generously strive for higher goals, movingly exploring how guilt and regret are every bit as good a reason to travel back in time as Will Smith entering the wayback machine to save Tommy Lee Jones’ life in “MIB:3.” Even more intriguing is their eagerness to examine an issue as hefty as what constitutes “crazy” and who has the right to pass that judgment. In fact, the whole movie is about flagrantly making assumptions about people only to later ruefully realize that you were completely wrong.
Page 2 of 2 - Aided by strong supporting turns by Kristen Bell and Mary Lynn Rajskub, Connolly and Trevorrow skillfully, and methodically, lay the groundwork for an emotionally charged third act that is as magical as it is powerful in reminding us of the pitfalls of being quick to dismiss society’s oddballs. Yes, it’s a comedy, but it’s also deceptively deep, leaving little wonder why Connolly captured the Waldo Salt screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Not only is his prose highly original in its tone and ideas, it also thankfully lays obsolete all those syrupy movies like “Somewhere in Time” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife” that smarmily endeavored to meld romance with time travel.
The movie’s richest assets, though, are its actors, whether it’s the heartbreakingly funny Johnson, the surprisingly hunky Duplass (who also serves as the film’s executive producer), or the enchanting Plaza, who rewards Connelly’s faith in her (he specifically wrote the part with Plaza in mind) through a to-die-for performance. She’s no less than a bright-eyed, full-lipped revelation, as she practically dares you not to fall madly in love with her. No problem there. Our safety might not be guaranteed, but our newfound admiration for Plaza most assuredly is.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (R for language, including some sexual references.) Cast includes Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Kristen Bell and Karan Soni. Directed by Colin Trevorrow. 3.5 stars out of 4.