I feel like lately there has been mounting backlash against low budget indie romantic comedies. I can’t say that I can fault people for feeling fatigued by film after film that tries to recapture the success of Garden State, Juno, or (500) Days of Summer. For every gem we get an Our Idiot Brother or The Art of Getting By, films that may not be awful, but seem to just tread water. Luckily, Safety Not Guaranteed falls firmly in company with the former set. While it stays true to many of the genre’s tropes, it manages to rise above with intense fixture on character development.
The film’s set up is based on an Internet-famous ad that originally appeared in a 1997 Backwoods Home Magazine classified section: “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. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” Using this as a potential story lead, magazine writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), and his two interns, the depressive Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the socially awkward science major Arnau (Karan Soni) venture out to a small seaside town to find the mysterious author of this strange ad. They soon discover Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a man who everyone considers to be nice, but a little mentally perturbed. After Jeff’s inner douchebaggery fails to earn Kenneth’s trust, Darius uses her shared outsider status to get to know him and the purpose of his ad. We also find out that Jeff’s ulterior motive for this road trip is to reconnect with his old time summer girlfriend, Liz (Jeneca Bergere).
One of my frequent complaints with romantic comedies in general it the feeling that we never get to know the characters well enough to know why the leads fall in love. And more often than not, we get the point of view of just one of the main characters. Safety Not Guaranteed manages to fully flesh out three of its main characters and give major insight into others.
Each character has a clear arc, with enough commonality to provide thematic resonance. Jeff, Darius, Kenneth, and Arnau all find specific places to empty their heads, allowing them to finally find closure in their own pasts, and get ready to embrace a new future free from the things holding them back. Yes, time travel is a definite exploration for this film, especially when it comes to the hardest kind of history to study: personal.
Plaza is definitely the shining star here, and those that know her as April on TV’s Parks and Recreation will see her finding new avenues to showcase her signature dead-pan style of comedy. Similar things can be said about Jake M. Johnson, who explores similar territory as his New Girl character. Mark Duplass brings intense pathos to the role of Kenneth, making a character that could have easily been caricatured by Zach Galifianakis into someone believable.
I would definitely characterize Safety Not Guaranteed as a must-see, given the strength of the performances, and how the film ultimately concludes. This is going to be a strong contender for a spot on my top ten this year!
Safety Not Guaranteed is currently playing at the Ritz Five.