Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
If nothing else, Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed sports one of the year’s best premises. In it, Seattle magazine writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) head to a nearby coastal town to investigate a classified ad for a time travel companion. “Must bring your own weapons,” the ad says. “I have only done this once before.”
A day’s worth of staking out the listing’s P.O. box yields its author, and with it a zany character to match. As Kenneth, Mark Duplass completely commits to all the goofiness and intrigue the ad suggests, and then some. He’s an odd soul and protective of his plan, but when an undercover Darius presents herself as an ideal accomplice, he cautiously brings her aboard.
Darius’ enthusiasm encourages him to reveal one wild detail after another, all of it cloaked in a paranoia of being watched by government agents. Cautious herself, lest he turn out to be a true psycho, Darius gradually finds more in common with Kenneth than she ever imagined. Deep down, she too genuinely pines for the past, before her mother died and life lost its thrill. In Kenneth, she sees a fellow broken soul struggling with the present, and both he and the far-fetched mission unexpectedly come to dominate her world.
The interactions between the two carry a whimsical energy and showcase Duplass’ extraordinary ability to turn on a dime between comedy and drama, all while maintaining Kenneth’s earnestness. His mix of humor, heartbreak, and a few potential loose screws makes for an endlessly appealing character, even though he’s too mysterious to completely trust.
If only Plaza could keep up. She’s spot on with the brand of deadpan humor that’s made her so much fun on Parks and Recreation, but in the handful of scenes where she has to be serious for more than a sentence or two, her lack of range shows. At other times, Plaza appears overwhelmed by Duplass’ commitment. Faced with a far more skilled co-star, numerous shots catch her suppressing a laugh, the muscles at the corners of her lips clenching to maintain her composure.
A millisecond from becoming a DVD outtake, her near blowups lessen the power of several shared scenes and detract from Duplass’ hard work. Darius is a difficult role, however, and not many performers can pull off both sides of this character. Plaza has the funny side down cold, but the other end needs work. That Duplass manages to excel at both stresses what a rare talent he possesses.
Even with the occasional dramatic shortcoming, Safety Not Guaranteed rolls along with fun and intrigue to spare. With an ending inevitably ahead, though, it rushes to a conclusion that will either completely work for you or feel cheap and conventional. I found it to take the film in a different direction than its previous style suggests. Instead of being their loose, goofy selves, I suddenly didn’t recognize Kenneth or Darius, who come to resemble cliches instead of the vibrant, original creations they’ve been all along. The film’s insistence to provide answers at all makes the ending somewhat of a bust. The set-up indicates that it has higher, more ambiguous ambitions, but Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly have other plans.
Inspired by the actual word-for-word ad, Safety Not Guaranteed still gets plenty right. On the heels of his strong turn in Your Sister’s Sister, Duplass again shines in what may very well be one of the year’s best performances. He’s the main draw here and the film should be seen for his work alone.
Rated R for language including some sexual references.
Safety Not Guaranteed opens on Friday, July 27 at at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Road.
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