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TBTS Reviews: Safety Not Guaranteed

September 5, 2012

I’m not made of wood, people. Give me a compelling story, believable characters with realistic arcs, add a little sweetness¬†and my enjoyment is guaranteed.

It shouldn’t work. I mean, come on, a movie based on a classified ad? That’s almost as ridiculous as a movie based on a board game! Safety Not Guaranteed goes a long way toward showing that the premise is merely what you start with; where you go with it and where you end up depends entirely on the talent involved. The movie follows recent low-budget/no-budget, independent fare like Another Earth¬†and Jeff, Who Lives at Home in providing what movies with ten times the budget and star-power struggle to bring to the screen: a movie that’s actually about something.

Darius (Parks & Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza) is an unpaid, unappreciated intern at a Seattle magazine. She and another intern, the hyper-academic Arnau, are recruited by douchey columnist Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson) to travel downstate in search of the submitter of an enigmatic classified ad. The ad seeks a partner in time travel, “must bring own weapons. Safety not guaranteed.” None of our heroes are really interested in getting the story; at best they expect to find some prankster or backwoods kook with delusions of grandeur. What Darius is really seeking is a little excitement in her unhappy life, Arnau seeks to pad his resume, and Jeff seeks to hook up with an old girlfriend from high-school. Soon they find Kenneth (Mark Duplass), grocery store clerk, Datsun driver, and our time-travel true-believer. At Jeff’s behest, Darius gets closer to Kenneth in order to “get the story,” while Jeff shallowly stalks his old flame. Eventually, Darius succumbs to Kenneth’s enthusiasm and geeky charm, and cynical Jeff finds what he thinks is true love.

Darius’ slow descent into affection for Kenneth is deliberate and believable, as is Jeff’s realization of what a materialistic sham his life is. These two love stories run parallel, though Darius & Kenneth are clearly the main event. What really sells it is Duplass’ performance as Kenneth. On the surface, everything he says sounds pretentious, obnoxiously geeky. But it quickly becomes clear that he is about as unpretentious as it gets; he is utterly sincere and without shame or guile. The story’s pacing is impeccable, right up until the last 5 or 10 minutes when it seems a tad rushed. Perhaps this was done to increase the excitement of the movie’s “is Kenneth right or full of shit?” climax. Regardless, that is my only complaint against this otherwise great movie.

Safety Not Guaranteed‘s tone is similar to that of the, in my opinion, deeply misunderstood Cyrus and last year’s wonderfully touching Jeff, Who Lives at Home. This is unsurprising since Duplass had a hand in both of those films (directing both.) Perhaps not quite as twee as some other indie fare (not that there’s anything wrong with twee), this movie still manages to do a lot with very little.

Check it out at your local art-house. You’ll dig this movie. I… (wait for it)… guarantee it.

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