Safety Not Guaranteed – Art 2/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5
Every American comedy film these days seemingly comes from a circle of people connected in some way to the Frat Pack or a comedy troupe like Second City or the Groundlings. Safety Not Guaranteed is no exception. Aubrey Plaza, in her debut as a lead, is an alumna of the Upright Citizens Brigade and regular on Parks and Recreation, and producers Mark and Jay Duplass made their extensive connections with previous film Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and the FX comedy The League. So it’s hard to call this one an indie sleeper while it packs such a wallop, however much those involved may appreciate being called a wallop. But the buzz for this movie is definitely slow to percolate, and rewarding once you dive in.
Inspired by an infamous time-traveling advertisement placed by John Silveira in his own periodical as a gag, Safety Not Guaranteed follows Darius Britt (Plaza), a shy young woman interning at a hokey Seattle magazine that somehow sees value in investigating such an ad. Is the guy serious? Is he a militant nutcase? Does he want to eat and rape all his neighbors in a ritual for Hades? Frivolous boss-lady Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is interested enough – perhaps out of the sheer desperation of an equally frivolous periodical – to send Jeff (Jake Johnson, easily confused with David Krumholtz), one of her more snarky and self-obsessed reporters, to investigate.
Jeff selects two interns, “the Indian and the lesbian”, to assist him on the road trip to the boonies. The sole purpose of his indulging the self-evidently fruity ad is a side mission to scope out a big-tittied high school sweetheart who once gave him a really sweet blowjob. While he pursues that angle, Plaza is thrown into the lion’s den to muckrake and make sense of the nerdy and obsessive-compulsive world of Kenneth Calloway (producer Mark Duplass), the man who placed the ad, who has a paranoid aversion to narcs and double agents who are on to his time-travel scheme. Plenty rolling-in-the-dirt as kids playing guns shit ensues to audience chuckles, deceptively making us feel complacent in our laughter.
The center of the film is an off-beat and rather cute drama that leaves behind a lot of the comedic cliches we’d expect, instead focusing on the social ineptitude of characters. Aubrey Plaza confirms her debut was aptly rewarded with a commanding performance at once funny and endearing, perhaps a superior Mila Kunis. Her character is poorly written: she’s perfectly hip with the in-crowd, but we’re to believe she’s a castaway. It’s hard to believe, and not just because she’s pretty. Her deft language and mannerisms demonstrate someone who’s never spent a minute at chess club, but is (perhaps quite contrarily) strongly in tune with the ridiculousness of Gen Y. Plaza is more capable as a parodist than an actress at this point, outpacing the writing. Her deadpan delivery is almost perfect for a Woody Allen project. I think her style offers a wide range, but we’ll have to wait to see it flower into bigger things. Her impersonation of Sarah Silverman has me guessing bigger things for her.
While trying to swindle the time-traveler into thinking she’s serious business, Darius moves from Bond girl (or rather, Austin Powers girl) to a sincere moment lamenting the tragic death of her mother because she asked for a gallon of milk (reflecting some of the heartbreaking letters written to John Silveira’s post office box in the original prank). Meanwhile, Jeff is off finding the merit in home-baked pie and homely hairdresser boobs. He’s dismayed that his high school babe is no longer the knockout he remembered, but a discarded sports wife. He has a brief stretch where his humanity overcomes him, and he gladly delves into the easy sensuality of suburban pussay. His impetuous desire to get what he wants is smashed hard when she rejects his offer to come live with him back in Seattle, and he reacts with infant-like rage. This side-story is notably given no resolution, except for Jeff to seek solace and redemption by getting his virgin Indian intern (Karan Soni) laid by some hotties at the gas station.
That isn’t to say any of the film at large has a proper resolution. One of the film’s chief failings is the lack of a logical resolution. Stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want a spoiler, but the film’s conclusion is diametrically opposite to expectation (which is good), but also coherency with the rest of the project. Darius and Kenneth make way in an actual time machine that ostensibly plops them back into 2001. The final scene is a home video of a ‘what does it all mean’ statement by Kenneth. It’s not unlike a Puritan going out for a night of drinking and Dionysian sodomy, only to blow his brains out with a Glock once the festivities end. If you get it, let me know, because I sure as fuck don’t. I’m not sure at which stage of the filmmaking process they decided this would be a fit ending, but if it were at the writing stage, I have some serious questions about their judgment.
However! However … this was an altogether fun movie, with a number of enjoyable gags that separate it from the chaff we’ve come to expect in comedy lately, and a standout debut performance by Aubrey Plaza. It definitely deserves a nice watchin’.