Every generation needs at least one sarcastic chick. We have Aubrey Plaza, whose bracing vitriol and crack comic timing have livened up films like Funny People and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and especially TV’s Parks and Recreation. Her usual act might wear thin in a lead role like the one she plays in Safety Not Guaranteed, but it doesn’t, because she performs a delightful twist on it. She is a major reason why this low-budget science-fiction comedy, which opens in Tarrant County this week, is such a wondrous piece of work.
Plaza portrays Darius, an intern at Seattle magazine who volunteers to work with reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson from TV’s New Girl) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to check out a classified ad placed by a man seeking a companion to travel with him in a time machine. In part, the ad reads: “This is not a joke. … Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before.” Their investigation leads to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a skittish, paranoid grocery store clerk living in a nondescript oceanside town who confides only in Darius and closely guards information about what he intends to do in the past.
Pursuing Kenneth’s story fires the slouchy, disaffected Darius with a sense of purpose for the first time in her life, and it’s funny that she’s the only member of the team who takes the assignment seriously — Jeff has pitched the story only so he can hook up with an old girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) who lives in the area. While Jeff is off revisiting his past (in a subplot that neatly mirrors the main plot), Darius is sucked into Kenneth’s desire to turn back the clock. Making impressive debuts, first-time director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly play with a decent amount of skill when it comes to depicting Kenneth as either for real or dangerously deluded.
Still, this show belongs to Plaza, who displays colors here that we haven’t seen from her. Her trademark sarcasm remains in full flower when she throws barbs at Jeff over his romantic hang-ups or at uptight nerd Arnau over the flame decals on his laptop. Yet when Darius gains Kenneth’s trust with a monologue about her mother, Plaza makes you see the wounded, guilt-ridden little girl beneath all the hostility. Similarly, in a late scene when it seems like Kenneth has been stringing her along, you can sense Darius’ feelings of betrayal recoiling on herself — she can’t believe that she let herself be hurt. The sweetly maladjusted Kenneth cracks Darius’ hard shell, and the romance between them brings great suspense to the climax, when Kenneth prepares to journey through time. A sunnier lead actress would have sabotaged this; seeing Plaza’s jaundiced eyes go wide as she takes a leap of faith makes this film uniquely powerful. There are any number of movies about jaded cynics who need to open their hearts and believe in something. Safety Not Guaranteed is one of the few that actually works, and it ends on a note of awe that Steven Spielberg himself would be proud of.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and Jake Johnson. Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Written by Derek Connolly. Rated R.