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Movie Curiosities: Safety Not Guaranteed

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I'd only heard of this film about a month ago, but it may as well have had my name written on it in big, bright neon letters. A quirky indie comedy with a clever original premise and deadpan jokes? I couldn't see this film soon enough. The trailer alone had me confident beyond doubt that this movie would be something very special. I mention this because when I say that Safety Not Guaranteed met my expectations, I want you to read that as very high praise indeed.

I'd like to start by establishing our leads. The female lead is Aubrey Plaza, whose major claims to fame are her prominent roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and "Parks and Recreation." She's made a few appearances on "Portlandia" as well.

The male lead is Mark Duplass, who may need a bit more introduction. He's probably best known for co-writing and co-directing such quirky indie comedies as Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives At Home, alongside brother Jay Duplass (both brothers exec-produce here, by the way). He's also acted in such quirky indie comedies as Humpday and Greenberg.

Our protagonist is the peculiarly-named Darius (Plaza), a 20-something woman fresh out of college. So naturally, she's living with her dad. She also has a crappy internship with Seattle Magazine, though we first meet her at a job interview someplace else. Having been to several of those, I've been wondering why we don't see more of them on movies. The whole point of job interviews is to learn about someone, so what better way to convey a ton of exposition about a character in a relatable and organic way? But I digress.

The point of the job interview is that we learn just how jaded Darius is. She's extremely introverted, she's incredibly cynical, and she's generally upset with her life at present. And considering that she's an intelligent, hard-working young woman who can't seem to get any respect, I'd say she has a right to be unhappy.

Anyway, we follow Darius to work and meet her colleagues. Easily the most notable among them is Arnau, a fellow intern played by Karan Soni. He's a textbook geek, possibly with at least one kind of social disorder to boot, and the film of course plays his clueless nature for laughs. Yet the movie doesn't seem mean-spirited about it, since it's made obvious that Arnau isn't a bad person. It's not that he wants to be socially awkward, he's just decided that his work and his education are more important. Moreover, it's obvious that for all of his social and emotional failings, he -- much like Darius -- is a smart person who's willing and able to get a job done. This leads to an additional amount of humor, as Arnau contrasts with Jeff.

It's Jeff (played by Jake M. Johnson) who first proposes to write a story about the crazy man who thinks he can time-travel. In truth, he just wants an all-expenses-paid trip to Ocean View, WA, so he can hook up with an old high school flame. Naturally, that means he's left the interns to do all the work, presumably so he can take all the credit later on. Jeff is such a tremendous dickhead that all of this is only scratching the surface.

Fortunately, Jeff's old girlfriend (Liz, played by Jenica Bergere) brings out a lot of good things in him. The two of them have quite a few very touching scenes together, and she helps Jeff go from a gigantic douchebag to a slightly lesser douchebag. They both have character arcs that are quite interesting to watch.

As for the alleged time-traveler himself, Kenneth (Duplass) is a joy to watch from start to finish. It certainly helps that one of the first things he does is to call Jeff out on his shit, which makes the character sympathetic right off the bat. Perhaps more importantly, there's a great deal of mystery to the character. After all, the entire film revolves around the question of what Kenneth is trying to accomplish, how he's trying to get it done, whether or not it can even be done, and whatever other secrets he's hiding besides.

Fortunately, Duplass plays the character completely straight-faced, but always with a hint of desperation and paranoia. It's exactly what the character needed to stay compelling. Sometimes, Kenneth's complete and utter commitment to his plan is contrasted against the mundane nature of what's around him, to surprisingly amusing results. Moreover, when the secrets are peeled back and we learn about all of the things that drive Kenneth, the answers turn out to make him even more sympathetic. The answers are every bit as entertaining as the questions, and that counts for a lot.

Also, it must be said that sparks fly the very instant that Darius and Kenneth meet. I'd never have thought the two actors would have had such sizzling chemistry, but the romance in this film fires on all gears from start to finish. Of course, it also helps that the two characters are both deeply flawed, and that their flaws nicely complement each other's. They're both highly introverted oddballs, rejected by society at large, and tired of the world around them. The difference is that Darius has basically given up on the world, so cynical that she's resigned to living a humdrum life for the rest of her days. Kenneth, on the other hand, believes that the status quo can be altered. More than that, he's actually making an effort to change the world for the better or die trying.

There are a lot of themes going on in this film. Regret and nostalgia are both prominently featured -- as might be expected of a time-travel film -- but both issues are explored in a novel way. It's very heartfelt, but never in a schmaltzy way. Far more importantly, this film is a stiff middle finger to the cynicism and pessimism of the early 21st century. It asserts that against all odds, there is still the possibility for something new and brilliant and magical to come into this world, in spite of all the jackasses who will inevitably come out to laugh at or to shut down such endeavors. On a similar note, the film is very anti-conformist. Time and again, the film posits that we don't need to follow peer pressure or to hide our various flaws, nor should we have to.

...Except, evidently, where Arnau is concerned.

One of the film's biggest missteps is in how Jeff takes Arnau under his wing. It's Jeff who teaches Arnau to loosen up, come out of his shell, and be more of a ladies' man. First of all, this goes completely against the Darius/Kenneth development arc, which professes that individuality is a thing to be embraced and celebrated. Secondly, as much as I appreciate the "seize the day" theme -- particularly in a time-travel movie -- its development might have sounded better coming from anyone other than the film's most prominent asshole. Thirdly, the film entirely fails to mention that Jeff's alcoholic and womanizing ways were a huge part of what made him such a bitter prick to begin with. Jeff is clearly living vicariously through Arnau, setting his intern up to make his own past mistakes, and the movie never calls him out on it.

And while I'm going through nitpicks, let's talk about Aubrey Plaza. The first time I ever saw her was in Mystery Team, and I can still remember her wooden performance in that film, to say nothing of her unfunny line delivery and her complete lack of chemistry with Donald Glover. I will gladly say that Plaza has come a long way since that 2009 film, but it's still not enough.

That's not to say she did a terrible job in this picture. Plaza delivers her jokes in a wonderfully deadpan way, and I can't heap enough praise onto her chemistry with Duplass. All of that said, Plaza didn't really disappear into this performance. I never saw a character on the screen, just Aubrey Plaza. She's precisely what the movie needed, don't get me wrong, but she's still got a ways to go if she's going to cut it as an actress.

Then again, I could say something similar for Kristen Bell. I'll grant that she only had a cameo role, and a crappy cameo role at that, but her presence in the film contributed nothing except for "Hey! It's Kristen Bell!" I found it very distracting, especially since Bell didn't have anywhere near the talent or charisma to make a good impression with her brief screen time (compare: The cameo at the end of Cabin in the Woods). This is one of those roles that would have been much better off with some bitchy dime-a-dozen pretty face.

Fortunately, to balance it out, Jeff Garlin is also graced with a cameo role. And he's a genuinely funny guy.

Still, if I had to choose my single greatest nitpick of the film, it would definitely be the pacing. This is a 90-minute film, and it felt a good half-hour longer. I suspect this is because the movie focused a little too much on humor and character development, leaving the plot's biggest confrontations and revelations until they could all be crammed together during the climax. Of course, the film also gave us the sweetest and quirkiest romantic musical number that I've seen since the singing saw in Another Earth, so there's that.

On the whole, I really loved Safety Not Guaranteed. For all its minor faults, the movie is creative, sweet, funny, and even suspenseful in places. What's more, the film presents several classic themes, doing so in a heartfelt and novel way. And it's all centered around a superb romance arc, courtesy of improbably powerful turns from Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass.

There's something here for everyone, so be sure to check it out at your earliest convenience.

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