It has been far too long since a truly decent mumblecore movie has come out. Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed puts the genre back in audiences’ good graces with Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass as lead characters Darius Britt (don’t question the fact that no one other than the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish is named Darius) and Kenneth Calloway. Based on a real personal ad published in the late 1990s in Backwoods Home Magazine (in case you’re mildly curious as to what sort of articles would be present in such a publication, they’re mainly how-to pieces focused on life in rural areas), the story possesses a simple charm that actually seems to go hand in hand with movies about time travel (Back to the Future obviously included).
Showing her abilities in a leading role, Aubrey Plaza, with her unabashed bias toward being cast as the Daria type (and I love her for that), shines as an early 20s intern at Seattle Magazine bogged down by the weight of her hatred for humanity (something Plaza has perfected the art of as April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation) and the permanent misery caused by her mother’s death when she was fourteen years old. Derek Connolly (whose only other writing effort was the 2005 TV movie Gary: Under Crisis, also directed by Colin Trevorrow) drives the bitterness of Darius home by wielding the weapon of voiceover as though he was the person responsible for writing every episode of My So-Called Life. With a screenplay so incisively written, Connolly’s recognition as the winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is not surprising.
Darius’ struggle to blend and appear normal is not made easy with a father (Jeff Garlin, who I will always see as Larry David’s agent on Curb Your Enthusiasm) who toes the line between joking disapproval and genuine concern (specifically over the fact that she’s still a virgin), no siblings to identify with, and a void where her mother should be, it only makes sense that Darius couldn’t give less than one shit about finding a legitimate job. Hence, during the opening of the film, when asked during a job interview by a restaurant manager if she could think an example of going above and beyond the call of duty for a customer, she replies tersely, “No.” The manager then dubs her a high-risk hire and Darius resumes her faceless intern responsibilities with unmasked contempt. That is, until a senior writer at the magazine, Jeff Schwensen (Jake M. Johnson, the only worthwhile cast member on The New Girl) suggests to their story-starved editor, Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub), that they write a piece on the person who wrote the following personal ad:
“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with. 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.”
Because the ad was placed in a paper in the coastal town of Ocean View, Jeff enlists Darius (who he refers to as “the lesbian”) and Arnau (Karan Soni), a shy biology major who is only interning at the magazine to appear well-rounded, to help him track down the person who wrote the presumably insane request for a time traveling partner. It is not until the three of them are already on the trip that Jeff admits his true motivation for pitching such an absurd story: Finding an old flame named Liz (Jenica Bergere) he used to hook up with during a summer he spent there in his youth.This leaves Darius, the only person with a real interest in the story, to do most of work–not that she seems to mind because, really, what else is she doing?
After staking out the P.O. Box that the person listed to write to, Darius watches an as of yet unnamed mullet-clad man open the box and then hurriedly get into his lemon yellow car. She leaves Arnau behind to follow him to the grocery store he works at as a stock boy (or man). Fascinated by his eccentricities, Darius figures out his name by pretending to fill out a positive comment card about his work performance. As she gets to know more about Kenneth Calloway, Darius finds herself on the fast track to emotional involvement. When Jeff’s plan to pose as the person interested in going back in time fails because Kenneth accuses him of never having known real pain, Jeff immediately enlists Darius as the time travel decoy. As she falls head-first into investigative journalism, it doesn’t take long for Darius’ admiration for Kenneth to become full-fledged adoration.
While it may not have the blatant product placement of Back to the Future or the cynical philosophy of Donnie Darko, what Safety Not Guaranteed does have is a better metaphor than both of the aforementioned time traveling movies. That metaphor being, regardless of how stuck you are in a certain mental state or how paralyzed you feel from moving forward with your life, if you find someone who simply accepts your emotions and idiosyncrasies as they are, letting go of the past doesn’t have to feel as terrifying. Oh yeah, and the other thing missing from any time travel movie is the voice of Gossip Girl a.k.a. Kristen Bell.