Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Review: "Safety Not Guaranteed"

Some films are based on novels, others on plays or short stories or articles. Not many, however, can boast that their story stems (however loosely) from an actual classified ad. A delightful mix of truth and fiction (although mostly the latter), Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed has been picking up enthusiastic reviews on the festival circuit all year. With the film currently in the process of a staggered limited release, I hope that more and more people will get to see what the fuss was about. Though it isn't a slice of top-tier work, Trevorrow's feature narrative debut is filled with engaging performances that help make this one of the indie surprises of the summer.

Revolving around an actual classified ad that sought out a companion for time travel, the story centers on a trio of magazine writers (make that one writer and two interns) who go to investigate the man responsible for the ad. Taking the lead is Darius (Aubrey Plaza), one of the two interns working for Jeff (Jake Johnson), who befriends Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in order to get a better sense of what makes him tick. 

Yet despite the potential for more overt sci-fi elements, the film keeps itself centered on the characters first and foremost. The execution is a little light and even a tad sitcom-ish in spots, but the performers bring a winning mix of humor and quirky pathos to their roles that helps balance the lack of true excellence in the narrative structure and direction. Plaza continues to use her trademark deadpanning to marvelous effect, yet she still manages to make her character feel like a distinct entity from her claim to fame, her role as April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation. The role plays to her strengths yet also pushes her just enough so that one isn't left with the impression that Plaza is simply coasting. Duplass is also strong, creating a convincing outsider without ever turning him into a condescending caricature. Despite the age difference, Duplass and Plaza have a nice (platonic) chemistry that helps keep the film engaging, even when it ventures off into a minor subplot or two.

In the supporting roles, Johnson (known for the sitcom New Girl) and Karan Soni acquit themselves nicely in their roles as a self-absorbed and lazy writer and a shy nerd respectively. Each gets a subplot of sorts, with the former's being more compelling, despite its distraction from the main narrative. At times the script separates the two characters from the Darius/Kenneth dynamic almost too much, though it never becomes more than a minor issue. Like the rest of Trevorrow's film, their stories are nicely told and produce entertaining, engaging results, even as they don't attempt for a deeper impact. Not that this is a bad thing, however. Safety Not Guaranteed knows exactly what it wants to be, never straining for more despite the sci-fi tinged narrative (save perhaps for the conclusion). Its themes are simplistic, yet they fit with the story and characters so comfortably that it hardly matters. It's just one more thing that makes Safety Not Guaranteed the small, yet fully satisfying comedy that it is.

Grade: B

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