Safety Not Guaranteed

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/19/12 09:53:44

"No guarantees, but a strong recommendation."
5 stars (Awesome)

The title of "Safety Not Guaranteed" comes from a classified ad that one character places, inspired by a real-life posting along the same lines; I'm pretty sure I recall seeing it as the hook to a science fiction adventure novel as well. That's not exactly the direction this movie takes, which is fine; it makes its offbeat premise work a lot better than you might expect.

That classified ad, claiming that time travel is possible and its inventor is looking for armed backup for his first trip. This attracts the attention of Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), a writer at Seattle Magazine, who sells his editor on it as a story, and so he goes up to Ocean View with two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni). A little investigation reveals that the ad was placed by Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who works in a supermarket and seems pretty eccentric. And while Jeff gets sent away when he tries to answer Kenneth's ad - which is fine; he's mostly looking to hook up with an old girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) - Darius and Kenneth connect. But is he a harmless crackpot, or a real cause for concern?

Writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow aren't playing things particularly coy here; each of the three main characters has something in his or her past that drives their actions. Sure, Kenneth is the one who claims to be building a time machine to roll back his regrets, but what Jeff's doing is the same idea - he's just trying to go back to the place where things made sense physically rather than temporally. Darius, despite being the youngest of them, is too cynical and wounded to believe that things can get better.

It's potentially heavy stuff, but the filmmakers make a funny movie out of it. There are a lot of moments that could have been tense or creepy, but Trevorrow and company almost always find a way to make them lighter. This isn't a screwball comedy filled with caricatures who do crazy things for no reason, but one where the filmmakers are pretty good at keeping the focus on how things are odd rather than playing up any potential danger. Plot twists have characters (and, by extension, the audience) curious or excited rather than scared, and the banter does a very nice job of displaying the differences between characters' personalities without necessarily favoring one over the other, even as it elicits chuckles.

The cast is doing this balancing act as much as the director, with stars Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass doing an especially good job of communicating their characters' better qualities without homogenizing them. Plaza's Darius is grumpy and cynical, while Duplass's Kenneth is twitchy and maybe delusional, but those traits come across as complementary rather than opposing from very early on. They've got the sort of chemistry together that makes the movie fun to watch whether it ultimately decides to go in the romantic comedy direction or not. Jake M. Johnson makes Jeff's shallowness funny without the humor coming from him being dumb, and able to grow a bit. Karan Soni and Jenica Bergere both do well implying lives and histories beyond their supporting roles, and there's a number of good people in smaller roles - William Hall Jr., Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Kristen Bell.

Connolly and company put things together nicely, too. The widescreen photography does a very nice job of setting the scene of this beach town that somehow seems especially chilly and run-down after the tourist season is over (with the filmmakers making the warmth they highlight subtly but effectively even more important). The soundtrack is a little song-heavy for my taste, but no individual track seems poorly-chosen. They also end things well, with a great image or two and good judgment on what should be ambiguous and what shouldn't.

Even if that hadn't been just right, almost everything leading up to it hits a sweet spot: Clever but not smug, likable without being neutered or over-sweet, and very funny without selling its characters out for a cheap joke. Not bad for something that could easily have looked down on its characters or otherwise twisted its premise into something mean.

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