Back in the mid-'90s, someone posted a classified ad in "Backwoods Homes" magazine reading: "Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." Screenwriter Derek Connolly reportedly uncovered the ad and immediately started spinning it into a script. It's a brilliant premise that cries out for a Charlie Kaufman-style head trip. The resulting movie, "Safety Not Guaranteed," however, is more quirky than crazy.
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The film centers on Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a cynical intern for a Seattle weekly who is still reeling from the sudden, violent death of her mother years prior. When Jeff (Jake Johnson), a reporter for the magazine, pitches the above classified ad as an article, Darius and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) soon find themselves on the road to investigate. She quickly discovers that the author of the ad is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a goofy paranoid who may or may not be making a time machine. Kenneth takes Darius under his wing, and soon his childlike intensity and inept displays of kung fu crack Darius's thick emotional shell.
With improbably huge eyes and a mouth that seems to be perpetually twisted between a smirk and a sneer, Plaza has played the weird, deadpan girl over and over, taking roles in everything from "Scott Pilgrim" to the TV series "Parks and Recreation" to this year's delightful "Damsels in Distress." In this film, Plaza gets to stretch her acting range beyond that stock role, and she shows off layers of warmth and vulnerability that her earlier roles only hinted at. It's a great transition to watch, and it's the reason to see the film.
Duplass's Kenneth is essentially the same lovable man-child that seems to be in a lot of American indie movies these days; think Jonah Hill's character in "Cyrus" or Jason Segal's character in "Jeff, Who Lives at Home." Both of those movies were written and directed by Duplass, who also executive-produced this flick. The difference is that man-children were at the center of those films; "Safety" solidly belongs to Darius. Kenneth plays essentially the male version of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" (a Manic Pixie Dream Dude?) -- a quirky, half-baked character who exists to help the lead embrace life. That gender reversal departs from the formula of other indie flicks, making the film much more interesting. That being said, "Safety Not Guaranteed" is a charming little movie that, in the end, feels a bit too safe.
See the trailer for 'Safety Not Guaranteed':