PARK CITY — A big win for everyone involved, Safety Not Guaranteed is especially exciting for fans of Aubrey Plaza, who proves she’s good for more than snarky scene-stealing and can actually carry a film. The movie’s time-travel theme may be what intrigues moviegoers, but reality-based comic performances and Derek Connolly‘s fine, funny script will have them recommending it to friends. Multiplex-friendly and thoroughly winning, its box-office prospects are strong.
Plaza stars as Darius, a social misfit whose magazine internship presents a diverting opportunity: She and another intern (Karan Soni) will accompany staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) to Ocean View, Washington, to find out who placed a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel. Smelling a nutcase, Jeff intends to profile the aspiring chrono-voyager; he also, not coincidentally, hopes to find an ex-girlfriend he lost touch with 20 years ago.
The mystery man, Mark Duplass‘s Kenneth, is easy to find, but hard to interview: A paranoid whose hermetic tendencies and iffy fashion sense peg him as a possible Unabomber, Kenneth figures Jeff is “one of them” and refuses to talk. Taking this as his cue to go hunting for his ex, Jeff sends in Darius — not as a journalist, but as a candidate to join Kenneth’s mysterious mission back to 2001.
Plaza plays the start of Darius’s infiltration as she might a storyline on Parks and Rec — she’s patronizing Kenneth in a way we find hilarious but that he can’t see, adopting his hard-ass “when things go down” lingo and convincing him she’s right for the job. But as they get to know each other, Plaza warms to an extent we haven’t seen. She’s convincingly fond of the guy who’s teaching her to use firearms and decipher coded messages.
For his part, Duplass keeps his oft-employed Everydude charisma in check: Kenneth is a wounded, mockably serious man, and the actor doesn’t start making him warm and fuzzy when it’s time for us to like him. Though the script shows us what’s underneath his facade — in a gorgeous scene, Kenneth plays zither and sings a sweet song by Guster’s Ryan Miller — we come around to Kenneth on his terms.
First-time director Colin Trevorrow handles the film’s shifting tone easily, earning laughs consistently even in action scenes and a climax in which Kenneth’s mental state is increasingly in question. Though the movie leaves audiences with some questions about Jeff’s own attempts to turn back the clock, it offers a perfect, open-ended resolution to the question that set it in motion.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, section
Production Company: Big Beach Films
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenwriter: Derek Connolly
Producers: Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf, Sephanie Langhoff, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow
Executive producers: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, John Hodges, Michael B. Clark
Director of photography: Benjamin Kasulke
Production designer: Ben Blankenship
Music: Ryan Miller
Costume designer: Rebecca Luke
Editor: Franklin Peterson, Joe Landauer
No rating, 84 minutes