Optimistic, endearingly scrappy, and sweetly told, Safety Not Guaranteed pursues both romance and science fiction and thereby resists easy categorization. Drawing on a low-tech, low-budget, low-concept premise and relying on a smart script and good-natured fun rather than special effects, first-time director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly come up with a deceptively simple comedy that’s one of the most entertaining films of the year.
The producers of Little Miss Sunshine, the rewatchable 2006 family road trip dramedy, have embraced a similarly charming yet ludicrous narrative in Safety Not Guaranteed. Three cynical Seattle magazine employees – a cocksure reporter (Jake Johnson, New Girl) and two interns – are inspired by an unusual classified ad to track down an eccentric (Mark Duplass, Your Sister’s Sister). Kenneth is a easily-spooked, likable, and paranoid supermarket clerk. He believes that he’s solved the riddle of time travel and is being tracked by government agents, and is now searching for a partner for his imminent departure into the next realm.
Enter Darius (Aubrey Plaza, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), an irksome, winsome young woman who, if not as wacky as Kenneth, is sufficiently unconventional to be willing to follow him down the rabbit hole. It’s about time Plaza got her own movie. Her droll, deadpan lead performance is excellent, and concurrent with her smashing involvement in Parks and Recreation as April Ludgate, it signals a mountain of talent. While the indie supporting cast is sound – I was a particular fan of Johnson’s smug sincerity and Duplass’ delightful distrust – Plaza is the real find. She belongs in the penthouse.
The cinematography is blandly picturesque, and Kenneth’s behaviour, implying symptoms of real mental illness, gets glossed over. Connolly’s screenplay is incredulous and scruffy in its byway resolutions. One subplot goes nowhere, crashing into the siderails with a jarring halt. Overall, however, it neatly dangles the hair-raising prospect of leaping from comic reality to the realm of pure imagination.
Sad, brisk, ostensibly modest, and mundanely uplifting, Safety Not Guaranteed sticks the landing. The stream of laughs arrive without cheapness, the characters have dimension, and while the Spielbergian finale may raise eyebrows, it is fanciful enough to send you soaring. Trevorrow shows potential; Plaza’s on the road to zany greatness.