Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Safety Not Guaranteed"

 4.5 / 5 

Here's a high-concept pitch that could go horribly wrong: Back to the Future meets Juno, from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine.  It's a little bit of a wonder that everything about Safety Not Guaranteed is so right.

It's a quirkily independent romantic-comedy-science-fiction movie that manages to do what most mega-budgeted, visual effects heavy, star-laden studio films can only dream of doing -- it surprises.  It only runs about 90 minutes, but if, at the 80-minute mark, you're think you're sure where it's all going, you're probably wrong.

The setup, which is right there on the movie's odd poster, is that a hipster Seattle magazine writer decides to look into the story behind an ad he found in the personals section.  It reads, "WANTED: Someone 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. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED."

The person who wrote it must be the crackpot of the century, and he'd make a great feature article.  With no other palatable pitches on the plate ("Seattle's Top 10 Dog Parks" has been done to death), the story gets the go-ahead, and the writer, Jeff (Jake Johnson). picks two interns to help him out: sullen-for-a-reason Darius (Aubrey Plaza, in a pitch-perfect performance) and awkward, reticent Arnau (Karan Soni).  They head to the coastal Seattle town listed on the ad's P.O. Box.

Sure enough, they easily find seemingly hapless Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who pulls up in his rusting Datsun 280Z only to find an empty mailbox.  Less easy is convincing him to let one of them be part of his "experiment," but Darius does, assuring him that he does not sound like a man who wears tinfoil on his head, at least not too much.  Maybe he's not so hapless, after all.

Safety Not Guaranteed is intensely character-driven, but has a plot that speeds along beautifully and mysteriously.  It seems someone actually is following Kenneth, and as she gets to know him, Darius realizes that even if he is crazy, the reason he wants to travel back to 2001 is a disarmingly honest and worthy one.

It turns out, Safety Not Guaranteed is a story about love (although it may not strictly be right to call it a love story) about the way time changes love, how love changes our perception of time, and how the tendency to fix ourselves in a particular moment may seem romantic, but also means we can't move on with our lives.  The script offers quiet moments of real beauty and insight, but manages to stay true to its characters and its central conceit, wittily, happily, often even joyfully.

Safety Not Guaranteed begins by showing us people in pain, then works like an emotional Goldberg contraption to get them as far away from that pain as possible ... in merry, entertaining ways.  It takes unhappiness and flips it on its head unexpectedly.  It's one of the best films so far this year, and without doubt the most ingratiating.

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