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Catching Up on 2012: Safety Not Guaranteed

March 15th, 2013
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A group from a Seattle magazine decides to investigate a classified ad that caught their attention: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”  The writer assigned to this little story (Jake Johnson) thinks it’s a joke, but when one of the two interns with him, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), actually meets the man who placed the ad (Mark Duplass), she begins to think there is more to him than just a nut.  Is that just wishful thinking on the part of this isolated young woman, desperate for a friend?

I included Safety Not Guaranteed in my Best Movies of 2012 list, and for good reason.  I was really taken by this small-scale little movie.

I’m a sci-fi fan, so it’s no surprise that my interest was captured by the film’s sci-fi hook, but this isn’t really a science fiction movie at all.  It’s more a character study of this small group of people, each broken in their own way.  (Although I could argue that in the best sci-fi, even films set in outer space with aliens and exploding space-ships, the sci-fi element(s) are tools for exploring drama, be that political ideas or an exploration of characters.  So that’s very much the case here, in which this story of a man who might have built a time-machine is the jumping-off point for this character piece.)

Mark Duplass is terrific, playing his role in a way that allows you to see him as totally sincere or as a total nut-ball as the film progresses.  I’ve been discovering his work as a writer and director over the past few years (I really dug the film Cyrus that he wrote and directed with his brother), but apparently Mr. Duplass is also a very skilled actor.  I bow my head in appreciation of the man’s many talents.  He’s really the anchor of this film — if his performance didn’t work, if he played the role as too kooky or too off-puttingly weird, the film would fall apart.  Instead, he creates a figure of intriguing mystery, one who we — like Audrey Plaza’s character — spend the whole movie trying to get to know and to understand.

Mary Lynn Rajskub (The Larry Sanders Show, 24) and Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) are fun to see in small cameo roles, and Jake Johnson does great work as Darius’ grade-A asshole co-worker, the lead writer assigned to the story.  But the film really belongs to Aubrey Plaza, who shines in this leading role.  Parks and Recreation has, for five years now, demonstrated Ms. Plaza’s tremendous comedic chops.  It’s fun to see her step into a leading role here.  While Darius shares certain similarities with April Ludgate (her Parks and Rec character), in that both are moody outsiders, I was pleased to see Ms. Plaza bring to Darius a surprising emotional depth.  I love the chemistry between her and Mr. Duplass, and I love the way the film allows their characters’ offbeat friendship to grow in a natural, gentle way.

I spent the whole film wondering to myself just how they were going to end this story, and I am pleased to say that the ending was absolute perfection.  This film’s great premise makes it a hard story to end, because how could we avoid being disappointed once the mystery about Mark Duplass’ character is solved?  But the filmmakers struck just the exact right note with the ending.  Major props to writer Derek Connolly and to director Colin Trevorrow.  This film left me with a big smile on my face when the closing credits rolled.  Very highly recommended.

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