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Safety Not Guaranteed

by on June 20, 2012
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“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a movie that involves time travel, but it’s not science-fiction. Instead it’s a funny/sad piece about a bunch of people whose lives are brought together by the prospect of going into the past and what effect that possibility has on them.

Do people really travel through time? I won’t tell you, not only because I don’t want to give too much away, but, as I said, this question is really not critical to the movie’s considerable success.

This oft-delightful indie acts as a counterpoint to “Moonrise Kingdom,” the recent Wes Anderson film that I have criticized as being relentlessly quirky just for the sake of self-indulgence. The characters in “Safety” are also off-kilter and even weird, but watching them, one senses their strange behavior occurs because of who they are, not because they’re putting on a performance.

In a sense, the people in “Safety” appear odd because that’s our outward perception of their inner core, whereas the folks in “Moonrise” behave strangely because they construct and maintain an identity based on others’ reactions to their oddness.

Aubrey Plaza is probably known to most people as the super-acerbic girl on television’s “Parks and Recreation.” I’ve enjoyed her immensely on that show, but I’ve often watched her on it or the tiny supporting parts she’s had in movies and thought, “I’d love to see what she could do with a bigger canvas.”

Here’s my answer, and what a joy it is. There are notes of her character on “Parks” — a cynical young woman sullenly navigating a post-college landscape without much success or enthusiasm. But Darius is a much fuller, fleshier portrait with subtle layers. Here’s hoping Plaza has more roles like this on the horizon.

Her counterpart is Mark Duplass as Kenneth, who places an ad in the paper seeking a partner for time travel. “This is not a joke,” the ad insists. “You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”

Darius, who interns at the fictional Seattle Magazine, is sent along with a veteran reporter and another intern to check out this odd announcement and write a story about the person behind it. Everyone expects it to be a big joke, but then Darius meets Kenneth and finds him, if not convincing, then utterly serious.

There are two kinds of weirdoes: those who are doing it for attention and those who think they’re passing themselves off as normal but aren’t. Kenneth belongs to the latter group. He works at a big-box store, wears an unattractive mullet, tools around in an ancient yellow Datsun 280Z and has weird conversations with his co-workers about our fixed perception of time.

After some hesitation, Kenneth agrees to take on Darius as his partner-in-training. Despite the fact that they practice shooting guns and his ramshackle house is filled with strange gadgets and drawings, Kenneth does not seem all that frightening.

He talks a lot of bluster about his smarts and skills, but it comes across as the innocent boasts of a 12-year-old who never grew up. When Darius asks about a rather strange feature of his anatomy, he goes into a sort of mental fetal position, and that’s when she realizes how vulnerable he really is.

Her ostensible boss is also undergoing a form of time travel, though with very different motivations and results. Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) is 40-ish and takes the assignment purely so he can reconnect with a hot girl (Jenica Bergere) he had a fling with back when. Along for the only partially willing ride is Arnau (Karan Soni), a timid, virginal nerd.

Just as Darius is realizing how much of a connection she has to Kenneth, things start to get serious when they break into a laser company, and men in black suits and sunglasses begin following them around.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a hard movie to pigeonhole. Director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, both feature-film rookies, have concocted an offbeat treat that keeps on surprising.

4.5 Yaps

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