Release Date: 26th December 2012
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
Safety Not Guaranteed‘s legacy can be traced back to a very specific point in time within popular culture. In 2005, a classified advertisement from ‘The Copenhagen Post’ was unearthed, uploaded online to YTMND and consequently received with a viral fever. The ad’s anonymous writer sought a companion in which to travel back in time, stressed that it was not a joke, but was also unable to guarantee the safety of the applicant. To this day the author’s identity remains a mystery, although that hasn’t stopped years and years of speculation, intrigue or silly videos featuring Don LaFontaine. Oh, internet.
Several years later, prolific mumblecore brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (Jeff Who Lives At Home, Cyrus) present this modestly-budgeted romantic comedy with a sci-fi twist in which the aforementioned ad plays a key role to the film’s narrative. While basing the premise on a seven-year-old meme is perhaps not the most inspired idea, an endearing setup, great central performances and sharp wit combine to alleviate any preconceptions of outdatedness or irrelevance one may feel as the title sequence begins to roll.
The introduction is brisk and economical: a group of three magazine employees — Darius (Plaza), Jeff (Johnson) and Arnau (Soni) — are sent on an assignment to discover the identity of the cooky ad’s author to assess whether or not he is as insane as he sounds, in the hope that it will make for an interesting editorial piece for their next issue. Through some minor investigative skills (read: stalking a PO box), we are introduced to Kenneth (Duplass) — a paranoid and seemingly troubled grocery store worker who believes wholeheartedly that he has the capability to travel through time. Darius enters Kenneth’s life as something of a sullen femme fatale with an agenda, but increasingly finds herself drawn to him as his insecure, vulnerable nature bubbles to the surface.
Taking a leaf from Gene Brewer’s K-PAX, the question of whether Kenneth is genuinely capable of such an implausible feat is held over the main narrative arc until the film’s final moments, however Safety Not Guaranteed‘s true appeal is in its treatment of characters. Relationships are given the time to convincingly develop within a script that manages to — for the most part — avoid clichés. Despite many of the characters appearing archetypal on the surface the dialogue does well to add an unexpected depth to engage with throughout, and chemistry between all involved is apparent as a witty rapport flows from one to another with an improvisational elegance.
Plaza’s deadpan performance is a joy to watch; the Parks and Recreation star seems comfortable in her cinematic debut, deftly handling Darius’ wry intensity. She acts as a fitting counterpoint to Duplass’ energetic performance; Kenneth bounces around scenes with a schizophrenic grace, reining it in enough so as not to appear as a caricature and maintain sincerity. The remainder of the cast are functional, if not necessarily memorable. Sub-plots involving the rest of the magazine team feel rather staid when juxtaposed with how effectively themes of youth, fate, regret and love are treated elsewhere in the narrative… although periodically cutting to Jeff’s parallel everyman problems served as a welcome mental reprieve from the evocative — if occasionally twee — issues facing the leads.
By the time the third act rears its ugly head, the resolution to the opening gambit has to be addressed — either Kenneth is insane, or legit. The film resolves with a surprisingly satisfying and coherent conclusion, as opposed to the open-ended, ambiguous cop out that was half-expected given the ambitious premise; a fittingly ballsy end to a most bizarre romance.