It happened with “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno,” and in a major way with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Blair Witch Project.” It most certainly took place with “Pulp Fiction” and “The Passion of the Christ.” These were all thematically unrelated, independently produced art-house movies that went on to do unexpectedly super-size business at the box office while enjoying almost universal critical acclaim. This type of thing is quite rare and sadly, even though most critics loved it, the huge box office thing didn’t happen for “Safety Not Guaranteed” (SNG), although the final take more than quintupled its $750,000 budget.
Based on a real advertisement placed in a Seattle magazine (which also made it on to a segment of “The Tonight Show”), the plot centers around three writers who believe there’s a juicy story behind this: “Wanted: Somebody 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. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
That’s what they call in the marketing business a “meaty hook.” No journalist in their right mind looking for ink could resist something this intriguing and patently insane.
Aubrey Plaza as Debbie Downer
With little to lose and everything to gain, loner and glass-half-empty introvert intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza, “Parks and Recreation”) all but pleads for the gig. She’s partnered with meek fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) who’ll both work with and for Jeff (Jake Johnson), the established paid writer who takes the job only because it will put him in close proximity to his old high-school flame Liz (Jenica Bergere). Jeff has no intention of doing any actual research or reporting.
While Jeff is busy pursuing Liz, Darius and Arnau quickly identify the guy who placed the ad. He’s Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a grocery store clerk who is brilliant but socially awkward and highly paranoid. He believes the government is tailing him and is bent on preventing his assembly of a machine that will take him back in time in order to right a wrong that took place in 2001.
Meet Cute in the Supermarket
A failure at everything she’s ever done (she can’t even get a job as a waitress because she’s deemed too surly), Darius takes to the investigative journalism thing like mere breathing. Egged on by Jeff to use her unorthodox feminine wiles to lull Kenneth into taking her on as his partner, Darius corners him at his store and glides through one of the best pick-up sequences in movie history. Kenneth is an instant goner and so are we. With this single scene Plaza establishes herself as the next art-house “It” girl.
Possessing mesmerizing brown sanpaku eyes, droll, deadpan humor, and a haunting air of impossibly genuine approachability, Plaza is Natalie Wood in tennis shoes and jeans minus the sometimes strained perkiness. While it certainly has a lot to do with the Darius character being written so authentically, it is mostly Plaza’s perfect rendering of her that makes such an indelible imprint. Darius is a woman who is unaware of her striking outward beauty and doesn’t quite realize that it is her odd ticks and endearing insecurities that make her all the more likeable.
Duplass as the Dorky Leading Man
Often behind the camera collaborating with his brother Jay, Duplass (who also appeared in two other artsy 2012 movies (“Lovers of Hate” and “Your Sister’s Sister”) is the ideal co-star for Plaza. Not exactly leading-man handsome, Duplass has a commanding screen presence and isn’t afraid of looking like a dork if need be. As with Plaza in the store sequence, the scene where Kenneth serenades Darius (while playing a lute) in the woods at night will melt even the coldest of hearts.
Without giving too much away, Kristen Bell plays a character who shows up once in the third act and just her mere presence provides an unexpectedly revealing but highly welcomed twist while contradicting (in a good way) an important piece of information put forth early on.
Because “SNG” had a typical indie low budget, it looks kind of, well, low budget. Shot in Seattle and its nearby beaches, “SNG” is still able to pull off a few visual feats, but it is the screenplay by Derek Connolly and the economic, assured direction from Colin Trevorrow that cements the movie’s concise tone and execution. It is also the first feature effort for both men, and together they would go on to helm and pen installments of the “Jurassic Park” and “Star Wars” franchises.
Don’t waste any more time. See this movie at once (visit JustWatch.com for available streaming platforms). It’s difficult to fully describe the depth and breadth of what this film encapsulates. “SNG” builds slowly but steadily and there is not a word, glance, inflection or frame that doesn’t serve a greater purpose to the whole. This is all the more impressive as it is only 86 minutes long.
Released on the same day as two big studio titles (“Prometheus,” “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”), “SNG” is a veritable cinematic Xanadu in a vast desert of crushing sameness. It’ll make you laugh, it might make you cry, and it will certainly make you believe anything is indeed possible.
‘Safety Not Guaranteed’
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Kristen Bell, Karan Soni
Running Time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: June 8, 2012
Rating: 5 out of 5