Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.
This is the fourth in a series of twelve films suggested by Chip Lary at Tips from Chip.
Sometimes, the person in the movie can make a huge difference in my reaction to it. I’m going to just come out and say it: I don’t have an exceptionally high opinion of Aubrey Plaza, and this has nothing to do with the fact that her name sounds like a destination. Aubrey Plaza always looks to me like she’s just smelled something unpleasant. There’s something off-putting about her, which means that Safety Not Guaranteed had a strike against it going in.
Fortunately, Aubrey Plaza’s consistent impression of Daria from the MTV cartoon show of the same name is the only major strike against this film. Well, that and the fact that her character has a male name disturbingly reminiscent of that very character. Darius (Plaza) works as an intern for Seattle Magazine, an unpaid position where she takes a great deal of abuse from her boss Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and just about anyone else who isn’t an intern. At a staff meeting Jeff (Jake Johnson) proposes a story based on a classified ad asking for a volunteer to accompany the man who placed the ad to travel back in time with him. That partner is responsible for his or her own weapons, safety is not guaranteed (hence the title), and most interestingly, the person placing the ad claims to have done this once before.
The story is a go, and Jeff takes Darius and another intern named Arnau (Karan Soni) with him to the town that contains the P.O. box of the classified ad. A stakeout of the tiny post office reveals that the man in question is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who works at a local grocery story. While Arnau and Darius track down Kenneth’s identity, Jeff reveals the real reason he wanted to do the story. An old girlfriend lives in this town and he wants a chance to hook up with her again.
Jeff makes the initial approach on Kenneth, but blows it. It instead falls to Darius to ingratiate herself into Kenneth’s world and become his partner. She does, making it through layers of his paranoia to finally end up as somewhat trusted, although not with the actual reason for his wanting to go back to 2001. He puts her through some tests, teaches her to shoot, and also informs her of the government agents who are currently tracking him and keeping tabs on him. Darius deals with his paranoia as best she can until just past the middle of the film when it becomes evident that Kenneth really is being tailed by government agents.
There are a few nice twists in the third act, and I’d rather not spoil them. It’s a smart enough film to give us something like redemption for multiple characters including Jeff, who is completely repellent for the first half of the film. He’s more or less a comic foil for much of the film, but he’s humanized by the time the final credits roll, and it’s one of the better things this film accomplishes in its very short (86 minute) running time.
The better turn, though, is that Safety Not Guaranteed has all of the trappings of being cynical, a film designed to be a freak show of a paranoid with regrets and delusions of grandeur, but despite hinting at this, it doesn’t go in that direction. With a different spin on the story, this could very easily have been petty and ugly. Instead, it manages to tell its story with a sort of ridiculous honesty that works more or less at face value. Kenneth is kind of a ridiculous figure, rolling around on the ground and working on his marksmanship, but the film has enough respect for him to make him a good shot. Yes, he’s weird and paranoid, but he’s never treated like an idiot, and that’s a good thing. There's also a moment when Kenneth sings a song to a zither. It sounds like something Robert Pollard would have written, and that's never a bad thing.
There is, of course, a romance that sparks between Kenneth and Darius that didn’t really feel necessary to me. In fact, that was the one part of the film that I predicted accurately, and just about to the minute in the running time that it would happen. I’m a little disappointed in that, but not terribly.
Still, this is entertaining, smartly written, and made with just the right combination of goofiness, self-awareness, and genuine warmth. It’s a rare combination and great when it blends together this well. Chip, you’re 4 for 4.
Why to watch Safety Not Guaranteed: The right amount of quirky and plot.
Why not to watch: Aubrey Plaza needs to stop acting like Daria from the old MTV series. That and the unnecessary romance.