Safety Not Guaranteed is not a sci-fi movie, even though the story is about a group of reporters following up on an ad for a partner to time-travel with: “Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed.” And it’s not a Duplass Brothers film even though the droll, low-key style, not to mention Mark Duplass as the would-be time-traveler, make it feel that way. It is a totally charming, un-hokey romantic comedy that above all gives Aubrey Plaza a chance to break away from her character of eye-rolling, deadpan April on Parks and Rec without actually straying too far. If you like April ( and don’t we all?) you will love Plaza’s character of Darius and this wacky, touching film.
From the start we see recent college grad Darius as a very unhappy intern at a Seattle magazine, morose and aimless, living at home with her father. (Remember that unhappiness; the plot uses it well in the end.)
She is recruited as free labor when a full-of-himself reporter, Jeff, (Jake Johnson, Nick on New Girl) takes Darius and a geeky guy named Arnau (Karan Soni) to sleepy Ocean View to work on a story making fun of the mystery man who placed the ad.
While Jeff stalks an old girlfriend - Johnson is good as a douchier version of Nick, but that is the weakest part of the plot - Darius tracks down Kenneth, the grocery-store clerk behind the ad. What starts out as a reporter’s pose - that she believes he has created time travel - turns into a genuine connection between two misfits. Darius treats Kenneth like a person, which he is obviously not accustomed to. Of course, being paranoid and thinking he’s being followed everywhere doesn’t help him make friends.
As Darius and Kenneth grow closer, the film keeps sight of its central questions: Is Kenneth simply the nut-job he seems? Has he discovered how to time travel? Are those two possibilities mutually exclusive? Duplass makes Kenneth so sincere that we can’t guess at the answer. (And this isn’t even Mark Duplass’ best role of the season. That comes next, in Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister.)
This kind of story needs perfect balance or it will tip into whimsy; Derek Connolly’s screenplay and Colin Trevorrow’s direction absolutely nail it.
But this is really Aubrey Plaza’s film. Just as April has shown a softer side in Parks and Rec over the seasons - pretty much on a need-to-know basis -- Darius begins to drop her defenses around Kenneth without losing her smart, skeptical view of the world. Plaza’s performance is shrewd, understated and touching as we watch Darius grapple with what she learns about Kenneth. Yet Darius always has that mischievous spark that reminds us of the wit behind Plaza’s inspired Twitter name: @evilhag
You’ll discover the truth about Kenneth, but the small touches leading up to that ending are what make the film so winning. Look at Kenneth and Darius at their first meeting, in front of a Warholesque stack of soup cans in the store where he works – an homage the film never winkingly calls attention to -- and you get a sense of the clever, deft way Safety Not Guaranteed sneaks up on you.