Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

A quirky indie, popular at Sundance, about Kenneth, an eccentric loner (Mark Duplass) who believes he's solved time travel and places a classified seeking a partner to accompany him back a decade on the machine he's invented. Sounds like a must to avoid, right? Not really. Almost despite itself, "Safety Not Guaranteed" successfully straddles - most of the time - the fine line between cynicism and credulity, preposterousness and possibility, affectation and emotional honesty.

The primary storyline, involving Kenneth and Darius, the Seattle Magazine intern who responds to his ad in search of an oddball character study (appealing newcomer Aubrey Plaza), isn't where the money's at. Rather, consider Jeff, the reporter she works under (Jake M. Johnson, a ringer for Mark Ruffalo), and her fellow intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), a glued-to-his-laptop gamer who, trapped behind what Jeff calls "pedophile glasses," has never had a girl give him the time of day. Derek Connolly's script delivers several out-loud laughs in the pleasingly offhanded and unselfconscious dialogue among Plaza, Johnson, and Soni, all of whom are terrific.

It's actually Jeff's character who experiences the most significant arc. Early on, he's cocksure and smirky in a way Kenneth pegs within seconds: "I can tell you're not the one for this mission." He views the junket to his sleepy harbor hometown as a chance to reune with an old high-school crush, and after making an appointment to meet her at work, walks out unrecognized upon finding that she's dyed her hair and put on a few pounds. Later, though, they do connect, and to his surprise he finds himself deeply moved by her kindness and wholesomeness. After a post-coital argument leads to some rash words, Jeff takes the interns on an alcohol-fueled night at a carnival, and there's a shot of Johnson, held for about twenty seconds, crying quietly as they play bumper cars, that I found quite beautiful.

There's also a sweetness to the character of Arnau, who develops in interesting and unexpected ways. In one scene, Jeff tries to set him up with a local teenage girl, tricking him out in Ray Bans and turning up his shirt collar in a hopeless quest to make him look cool. In a lesser movie, this scene would be played strictly for laughs. Here, Arnau has the last word: "What are you aiming for?" he asks Jeff. "Do you just want me to be embarrassed?" I was as surprised as anyone by the off-kilter charm of "Safety Not Guaranteed." The time-travel front burner you can take or leave, but the interplay between Plaza, Johnson, and Soni merits seeking out.

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