REVIEW: Aubrey Plaza Brings Sardonic Solidity to Safety Not Guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza might just be the anti-manic pixie dream girl, the gloriously glowering inverse of that giddy, whimsical creation who lives only in the movies, where she waits her whole life for a morose protagonist to charm and rescue. Plaza, with her indie rock Wednesday Addams vibe and remorseless deadpan, never seems like she's there to coax someone else into enjoying life. She's got her own things to worry about, and anyway, why does she need to do you that favor?
Screenwriter Derek Connolly wrote the role of Darius Britt in Safety Not Guaranteed with Plaza in mind, and she provides a sardonic solidity to a story of sometimes scattershot whimsicality. As Darius, Plaza has to navigate a world in which she hasn't been able to successfully fake interest, until she meets the goofy and possibly crazy Kenneth (Mark Duplass), whose devotion to his warped (or is it?) world view -- in which he's capable of time travel and the government is out to get him -- resonates with something inside her. Early in the film, Darius gets turned down for a restaurant job because she can't act like she's enthusiastic about it in the interview. She obviously thinks she's too good for the gig, her potential employer sniffs, which isn't really the case -- she just can't pretend that what she openly admits would be a way to pick up extra cash outside her internship is somehow her passion.
That internship is at Seattle Magazine, where she does coffee runs and replaces toilet paper in the bathroom and sneaks her way onto an assignment with awkward fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and smarmy staff writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson). They're being sent to the seaside town of Ocean View, WA, to investigate a classified ad from someone who claims to be searching for a companion with whom to go back in time -- "Must bring your own weapons," the text says, while insisting that "This is not a joke." Jeff pitches the idea as a human interest/interview the crazy person feature, but once the three get on the road it becomes evident that it's more of a boondoggle. He used to go on vacation to Ocean View when he was a kid, and fell in love one summer with the girl of his dreams, one he hopes to track down again.
Safety Not Guaranteed is the first feature from Colin Trevorrow, and it poignantly juxtaposes the literal time travel that Kenneth hopes to achieve with the figurative kind in which Jeff is indulging, once he tracks down his old flame Liz (Jenica Bergere) and gets over his initial but ludicrous shock at the fact that she's no longer the lithe teenager he knew back in the day. Darius, Kenneth and Jeff are stuck, unable to get over something that happened to them in the past -- the death of a mother, a break-up, a first love -- and rather than process it they've latched onto the idea that going back and fixing things is the only (impossible) solution.
Safety Not Guaranteed is permeated with that aura of unfocused melancholy common to so many indies these days -- what are we all so damn sad about? -- but by tying it back to characters that don't seem popped from any too-familiar mold, the film allows its sense of regret, its alarm at time passing, to feel earned. And Darius' romance with the oddball Kenneth is an off-kilter and intriguing thing. A supermarket employee who lives out in the woods in the house left him by his parents, Kenneth is genuinely off, wearing odd outfits and ranting about quantum mechanics to his coworkers. He's smart enough to immediately sniff out Jeff's bullshit on first approach, which is how Darius ends up getting sent in to befriend him.
Darius clicks with him immediately -- the scene in which she introduces herself to him and pummels her way past his defenses in the soup aisle is one of the film's best. That a pretty new college grad would fall for a gone-to-seed loner obsessed with martial arts, guns and stealing parts for a time machine (Kenneth can seem like a more developed version of Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite) smacks of quirky wish-fulfillment, but Plaza and Duplass are tentative and sweet together, and their interactions engage with rather than ignore the lurking creepiness of their courtship -- which goes both ways, since she's there to enable an exploitative magazine article about him.
It's only when it approaches its end that Safety Not Guaranteed goes awry, painting itself into a corner in which there needs to either be a hint of magic or a revelation about insanity. The path the film takes isn't unexpected, but feels unsatisfying rather than enchanting given the complex characterization that lands us there. With someone like Darius, who's so uninterested in allowing people their comfortable social illusions, the act of opening up and learning to trust can be its own kind of quiet miracle -- anything on top of that feels false.