Saturday, June 16, 2012

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED = A Hilarious Summer Surprise


- Here in LA, there are so many indie movies playing in so many theaters, that it can be hard as a film fan to discern what's actually worth seeing. Sometimes, you've just got to take the plunge. And with Safety Not Guaranteed, the combination of good word of mouth, a premise that intrigued me (quirky time travel comedy) a cast that includes numerous actors I'm a fan of (Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Kristen Bell), and the fact that it was playing nearby my apartment ... all drove me to check it out. Well, I'm damn glad I did. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is one of the best movies of the year so far - an absolutely hilarious, charming, and original comedy that is most definitely a must-see.

Much has been discussed about the origins of the movie's plot. Apparently, there was a real, minor news-of-the-weird story a few years back about a guy who placed an ad in the paper looking for a companion to go back in time with him. The movie takes that idea and runs with it - and in doing so, it tries to imagine just who this guy is that would place such an ad. Is he legit? Crazy? A little of both? Why does he want to go back in time so badly, anyways? In the film, we follow Darius (Aubrey Plaza), as she investigates these very questions. Darius is a twenty-something in quarter-life-crisis mode, stuck in an unpaid internship at a Seattle-based magazine, living at home with her dad (a briefly-seen but very funny Jeff Garlin), and trying to figure out what to do with herself - how to get out of her current funk. One day at the magazine, thirty-something reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson, best known as Nick on New Girl) pitches doing a story about a guy who's placed an ad in the paper about time-travel (very similar to the real-life ad described above). Jeff takes Darius and another intern - nerdy braniac Arnau (a hilarious Karan Soni) - to track down the guy who placed the ad and see if there's a story to be found. Jeff, however, has his own agenda. He sees the story as an opportunity for a paid vacation. Also, it so happens that his old flame from high school lives in the same town as the time-travel guy, and Jeff has hopes of a hook-up. He also decides to take Arnau under his wing and show him how to loosen up and party. Meanwhile, it's Darius who ultimately meets and gains the trust of the would-be time-traveller, Kenneth (Mark Duplass, in an amazing performance). And while everyone else views the story as a sort of weird joke, Darius begins to wonder if there's more to this Kenneth dude than meets the eye.

Mark Duplass as Kenneth is ridiculously funny in this. He's like some weird mashup of Kenny Powers, Napoleon Dynamite, and 80's-era Kurt Russell (he wears a denim vest with cutoff sleeves and upturned collar at all times, and sports an awesomely retro mullet to boot). Kenneth is just a great character - with a naive-but-steadfast belief in his mission and purpose that rarely wavers. He's also supremely paranoid, slow to trust Darius and convinced that people are out to get him. And he's also a geek - a guy who seems to be overcompensating for years of being a weirdo and outcast by haphazardly training himself in martial arts, firearms, etc. with a delusional belief that those skills will be crucial when he travels to the past. But ... there is also a sense that, for all his delusions, there just might be some weird sort of genius buried within Kenneth. And also, there's a real sadness that occasionally bubbles up. Kenneth is a great character because he's over-the-top and really, really funny - but also because there is genuine humanity at his center.

And honestly, that's what's great about this film - it isn't afraid to get serious and emotional - but it's never cheesy about it ... the emotion feels earned. And the seriousness also never comes at the expense of the comedy. I can only evoke such classics as The Simpsons, in terms of comparable comedy that still managed to gut you at times when the tone would become more sincere.

To that end, I did feel like there was something deeper going on with this movie, despite the comedic sensibility. It felt like a movie about being in your 20's, about figuring out where you're going, and about figuring it out in spite of what others think. In fact, the three main characters (other than Kenneth) each sort of represent a different stage of being a twenty-something. Arnau is the naive nerd who's still really sort of a kid (he's inexperienced with the ladies and has lightning bolt decals on his laptop). Darius is the girl who's ready to make her mark in the world and take that next step into adulthood. And Jeff is the guy who's older and jaded, and nostalgic for the days before the world had beaten him down. It's interesting to me that the movie spends as much time as it does with Jeff and his quest to rekindle his old romance with his girlfriend from high school. At first, when he sees she's put on a few pounds and aged a bit, he balks. But soon enough he realizes that he needs to get past the fact that nobody looks like they did when they were eighteen. At the same time, Darius has to get over her cynicism about Kenneth - slowly but surely, she realizes that he just may be one of the more genuine people she's met, even if everyone else thinks he's crazy. Arnau tries to overcome his annoyance with Jeff's fratboy ways, and realize that maybe he does need to man up and face the world a bit more than he has.

In some ways, this is also a great companion film to the recently-released MOONRISE KINGDOM - both are about outcasts finding each other, and both have an "us against the world" theme at their core.

Getting back to the cast for a second though ... while Duplass gets a lot of the best lines and moments, the ensemble here is really pretty remarkable. Aubrey Plaza obviously tends to play a certain type of character, but she does it so well, and can bring so much nuance to these types of roles, that you can't really complain. She's great here. Jake Johnson is really good too - he brings the same sort of barely-bottled-up rage and emotional instability to the film that he does to New Girl, and he's a guy who just has amazing comic timing. Same goes for Karan Soni - hilarious and spot-on. There are also some nice little appearances from fan-favorites like Mary-Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin, and Kristen Bell.

Most of all, the movie just has a really funny, really well-done and multilayered script from Derek Connelly. These are just great characters, given hilarious dialogue - but there's also that underlying sincerity and heart that makes this a multidimensional and highly rewarding film. My one complaint is that a key plot-point about Kenneth's relationship with Kristen Bell's character felt a little too ambiguous for me. The truth about their relationship motivates a lot of the movie's plot - and provides the backstory for *why* Kenneth wants to go back in time in the first place, and I felt like the script left us hanging a little bit with the reveal there.

Overall though, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is one of the nicest film surprises of the year so far. Laugh-out-loud hilarious yet oddly poignant, this is a must-see for those looking for something a bit more substantial and unique this summer. Seek it out and see for yourself. And hey - it's also got time-travel!

My Grade: A-

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