Thursday, July 19, 2012

Culture Shock 07.19.12: 'Safety Not Guaranteed' is worth the risk

There is a subset of romantic comedies in which one of the two lead characters approaches the other under false pretenses. Usually, the character is an undercover police detective or a journalist — a person pretending to be someone they're not.

This set-up leads to an inevitable confrontation. The betrayed character learns he or she has been lied to, and the cop/reporter/etc. character apologetically confesses all, maintaining that while everything else was false, their love is real. And it is, too.

You know this moment is coming, and if you're like me, you can spend an entire movie dreading it like a dog would dread a trip to the vet if dogs could read calendars. It's a ticking time bomb of movie clich├ęs.

So, you must understand that it's high praise, coming from me, to say one of the best things about "Safety Not Guaranteed" is that when it gets to the scene where the reporter's cover is blown — that's not a spoiler; you know it's coming — the film handles it quickly, succinctly and moves on without too much fuss.

For those of you whose concerns aren't eccentric, know that "Safety Not Guaranteed," directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Derek Connolly, is an utterly charming romantic comedy that will especially appeal to people who don't like typical romantic comedies.

The reporter — actually an intern — is Darius, played with her usual deadpan appeal by the geek goddess that is Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation").

When her boss at a hip, regional magazine decides to check out the story behind a bizarre classified ad, Darius is eager to tag along, as it's the first not-boring thing to come along.

The ad reads, in part: "WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. ... SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED."

That's enough to intrigue Darius, who has been isolated, aloof and generally alienated from her peers and their interests since her mother died years before.

So, Darius, nerdy fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and smooth-talking reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) take a road trip to find the person — probably a loon — who placed the ad.

Well, sort of. Jeff really just wants to use the trip as an excuse to hook up with an old girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) while making the interns do all the real work. As a journalist, I can tell you this is totally realistic.

That leaves Darius to approach the would-be time traveler and find out his story.

Kenneth (Mark Duplass) claims to have traveled back in time once before, and he is absolutely serious about his mission, which involves weapons training and an emergency plan to get a message to his future self if anything goes wrong in the past. Like Darius, he's alienated from the world around him, he just has an unorthodox way of dealing with it.

Duplass skillfully walks a fine line with Kenneth, making us root for him even as we wonder if he's entirely sane. And we also root for Jeff. In most romantic comedies, his character would be a one-dimensional jerk, but here he's a guy who is usually a jerk but also a real person. Again, as a journalist, I can confirm this is totally realistic.

That said, "Safety Not Guaranteed" is Plaza's movie to carry, and the cynical, world-weary, wise-beyond-her-years presence she bring to bear here signals that we're probably looking at the rise of a new indie-film queen.

That's not guaranteed, mind you. But then nothing worthwhile ever is.

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