“Safety Not Guaranteed” is an almost effortless blend of countless disparate elements: twee ‘indie’ sensibilities, high-concept mystery, story of romantic discovery and re-discovery, occasional comedy, and budding romance. Not to mention, of course, the film’s entire conceit revolves around whether it’s science fiction or not. It’s as high-wire an act as any independent American film has put on in quite some time, and does so without calling major attention to itself.
And who leads this elaborate set-up? The queen of dry, low-key restraint, Aubrey Plaza. She plays Darius, a mid-20s Seattle magazine writer still troubled by her mother’s death a decade prior. Her boss, Jeff, spots a magazine ad where a man requests a partner for time-travel, and decides the duo will travel up north, along with nerdy intern Arnau, to investigate the man behind it. But soon, Darius begins to see something in this guy Kenneth, a paranoid yet oddly endearing fellow. To go further is to spoil.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” is remarkable in that it has such mysterious ambitions, yet demonstrates total clarity in storytelling and character. These are remarkably well-defined individuals, played with equal doses restraint and likability. Aubrey Plaza in particular leads in the film in the wisest way possible: without flash, without pizzazz. She riffs on her traditionally dry persona, but with an added degree of regret and pain. She balances the film’s truly unpredictable element: Mark Duplass. Duplass, who I’ve long admired for his work directing independent comedy, shows his skill on the other side of the camera. His character, Kenneth, needs to veer the line between sweetheart and potential psycho, and he does it beautifully.
Derek Connolly’s script, running a taut 82 minutes, is about as perfect a first-time writing job as I’ve seen in a while. From the pitch-perfect dialogue, to consistent tone, to the balance between varying story lines, each as interesting as the next. Connolly’s work is polished from top to bottom, and the poignant conclusion ties it all off nicely.
If there’s anything “Safety Not Guaranteed” stumbles when handling, it’s not apparent to this eye. It does fire on damn-near every cylinder. The only major area where it underwhelms? There’s simply not enough to chew on. As mentioned before, the film does have a really brief length, and while the film does quite a lot with the time it has, the brevity disservices some story arcs.
A prime example is Jake Johnson’s character, as Darius’s sleazy boss, Jeff. Jeff’s primary motivation to tag along on the trip is to reconnect with an old high-school girlfriend. However, this subplot is introduced, demonstrated and finished in about four scenes flat. They’re four strong scenes, but it’s just not enough.
There’s all sorts of rare qualities buzzing around in “Safety Not Guaranteed”: a completely original premise, a satisfying conclusion that re-contextualizes every scene that came before it, and the good sense not to overstay its welcome. If anything, the film bows out a bit early. B+