“Safety Not Guaranteed,” written by Derek Connolly, directed Colin Trevorrow, 86 minutes, rated R.
The movie practically writes itself: “WANTED: Someone 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.” But Derek Connolly’s script, based on this Backwoods Home Magazine classified ad that ran in 1997, is more about people than time travel.
At the center of this story is Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a loner who can’t connect with anyone, and has struggled to find true happiness since her mother died when she was a teenager. A young intern at a Seattle magazine, Darius is assigned to find the writer of the aforementioned ad to see if he actually believes in this time travel stuff, accompanied by a superficial reporter, Jeff (Jake Johnson, always funny), and an uncomfortable intern named Arnau (Karan Soni).
This is where we meet Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a 30-something who truly believes he can, and will, travel back in time. He talks about “the mission” (which, of course, is top secret), spouts off catch phrases about “the heat” and staring fear and pain in the eyes, and practices his own bastardized form of martial arts with a bandana tied tight around his near mullet. It’s all very funny, but what makes Kenneth tick?
As we get to know him, we realize that he’s been a social outcast his entire life – relentlessly bullied as a child, using the video game world of “Contra” or his “Star Wars” action figures to escape the day-to-day torment too many children face. Even as an adult, he lives in his own world of make believe, held back by his regrets and insecurities. But in Kenneth, Darius finally finds someone she can relate to.
Within this silly premise, there are characters. Real characters with personality and quirks, who can make you laugh one moment and empathize the next. Although Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow help find the balance in these characters, the responsibility ultimately falls on the actors, all of whom answer the call, but none more than Duplass. When awards season comes around, Mark Duplass likely won’t get much talk, if any, for his performance here. But he should.
For those looking for an off-beat indie charmer, with humor and sincerity that all comes together in its own awkward way, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is quite a ride. For me, however, this film was an absolute joy to watch, and it’s one of my favorites from 2012 so far.