“WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety Not Guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
So reads the classified ad underlying one of the more enjoyable experiences I had at the movies this summer. It’s based on an actual event in 1997 wherewith free space, a writer for Backwoods Home Magazine was tasked by his editor to come up with fillers, so the classified page to the magazine wasn’t riddled with white space.*
Items of such entertaining triviality rarely make interesting moving pictures. Off the top of my head, I can think of another Internet phenomenon that made for a questionable movie: Epic Beard Man became Bad A–. Danny Trejo in a fanny-pack? Pass. Mark Duplass as a neurotic grocery clerk who may or may not be a quantum physics-genius? I’m interested, but it’ll have to be good.
And, good it is. Safety Not Guaranteed opens with Darius (played by the always charming Aubrey Plaza) lamenting how uninteresting she is; her mediocrity dating back to the time her mom died when she was a child. Things are so morose for Darius, her dad (Jeff Garlin, in a cameo more or less) actually bemoans the fact that his daughter “might be a virgin.” Not because he’s an irresponsible patriarch, or that he’s trying to fit in with his daughter as the “cool dad” who talks about sex like it ain’t no thang, but because he’s genuinely concerned his daughter doesn’t have a social life.
Nevertheless, Darius works for a Seattle magazine as an unappreciated intern. After one of the magazine’s writers, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), sees the infamous classified, he suggests to his editor that he take two of their interns to Ocean View, Washington, to investigate the matter. As he puts it, “it could be a funny story.” While Jeff may have ulterior motives for going to Ocean View, he brings along Darius and an Indian college student, Arnau (with some of the best lines), to do most of the work.
It’s in Ocean View where this story gains momentum and elevates itself above the other quirky, indie art-house films. At first dismissing Jeff, who does his best to remind the audience of every frat guy douche you’ve ever hated, we finally meet Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the author of the mysterious advertisement who warms up to Darius and her quest to “go back in time and save [her] mom.” While Darius, at first, is only interested in the story, she soon realizes there may be more to Kenneth than meets the eye.
I wanted to dislike this film. Usually, independent films, and especially independent comedies, strike a chord of alienating condescension. In the desire to be witty – let’s be honest: independent films can’t rely on anything else but dialogue with the budgets they have – most of the story ends up being an exercise in how the characters are more informed, more cultured, and just better than you [the audience]. But then, some strike that balance of characters one can relate to and a story one can appreciate. Little Miss Sunshine and Juno come to mind. That said, I’m happy to relay that Safety Not Guaranteed is an enjoyable, little gem that at no point takes itself too seriously to be drama or too light to be buffoonery.
The movie is funny. It’s charming. And, I believed in the romance arising between the two lead misfits. Moreover, any screenplay that has an Indian nerd uttering the line, in deadpan seriousness, that, “Storm Troopers weren’t scientists! They were, like, blue collar workers,” gets an A in my book. That isn’t to say it’s not without its faults: at least one subplot seems unnecessary involving Jeff, the actual writer on the trip, and while I absolutely adored the ending, I’m still not sure if it fits. But, this is like criticizing Cindy Crawford for having a mole above her lip. Yeah, it’s a mole . . . but she’s Cindy Crawford.
In other words, go see Safety Not Guaranteed.
*You can read all about this here.