Two time-travelling movies on big screens at the same time? That just happened—not that I’m complaining, particularly when they’re this good. Joining ‘Looper’ is the tonally opposite comedy with a warm, gooey centre, ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’. It’s a remarkable production, given the limited budget ($750,000 – which is tiny by most Hollywood standards) and the quality of the cast here. This is one of those films the exudes ‘passion project’ – packed with good ideas and sharp wit that propel it out of the indie murk.
Aubrey Plaza, who has made a career from playing jaded, frowning and deadpan characters in ‘Parks and Recreation’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ amongst others, plays intern-journalist and chronic Gen Y-er, Darius Britt. Her sleazy boss and mentor (a terrific Jake M. Johnson from ’21 Jump Street’ and ‘Get Him to The Greek’) takes Darius and another intern on a road-trip to track down an apparent time-traveller advertising for companions. With a hot story in the pipeline, Darius meets the paranoid but brilliant Kenneth Calloway, played by Mark Duplass (‘Cyrus’, ‘Jeff, Who Lives At Home’).
It’s decidedly a quirky premise – and director Colin Trevorrow, who to date has only directed a few low-key films and television shows, apparently revels in it. Safety Not Guaranteed strikes upon a similar flavour of humour to Aubrey Plaza’s own Parks and Rec – held stares, great one-liners and a very natural interplay between the cast members.
Mark Duplass reminded me of a softer, less abrasive version of comedian Bill Hicks. Both share a wizened paranoia of the world and Duplass’ delivery is brilliant – hitting some dark topics for big, genuine laughs. His world of engineering drawings is brilliantly played against his daytime shelf-stacker day job. As an everyman, you want his time-travelling goals to work out.
Plaza was always going to fit in well here; she’s typecast as the uptight, disaffected youth these days – but honestly, she plays it so well that it’s not a surprise. Does she have range? She does – and it comes into focus mid-way into the film when the dynamic between her character and Ken Calloway begins to shift and evolve. She does a great job here – and her comic timing is offset perfectly against Duplass.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, I guess, but Jake M. Johnson does a great job here. He gets to ham it up as the marginally sleazy and definitely lazy journalist, Jeff. Johnson has been steadily building a career as a bit-player in a wide range of excellent comedies over the years. It’s satisfying to see him taking a more central role and nailing it. His subplot does tend to play to clichés that are at odds with how refreshing the rest of the film is though.
A tip of the hat to Jeff Garlin (‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’), Kristen Bell (‘Hit & Run’) and newcomer Karan Soni in some rich support roles. Soni in particular, who plays a meek grad-student looking for some academic credit, is a star in the making – no question.
There’s an innocence to ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ that shines through. I have a feeling it was the by-product of a tight shoot and a need to deliver on the time-travelling set-up as carefully and deftly as possible. When a crew is given constraints like a miniscule budget, more emphasis rightly goes into tightening up things like scripting and performance. It’s the ‘Chasing Amy’ phenomenon at work. ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’, like Kevin Smith’s best work, sails smoothly on great writing and comic delivery. With a dash of sci-fi quirk, it stands out as one of the better comedies this year, no doubt about it.