Friday, June 22, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed: Satisfaction certain

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Established writers, when doing the obligatory meet-and-greet with fans — at book signings or lectures — know that, sooner or later, somebody will ask the predictable tired question:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), worried about spooking the odd man that she
and her fellow magazine staffers — Arnau (Karan Soni, center) and Jeff
(Jake M. Johnson) — have staked out, doesn't want to follow the
guy too closely. More to the point, she's beginning to question her
motives; can her objectivity survive, if she develops feelings for
their target?
Neil Gaiman used to claim a subscription to the Idea-of-the-Month Club. Harlan Ellison generally cites Poughkeepsie. Joe King, son of Stephen King and now an established author in his own right, has a different geographic source: “Schenectady. They have ’em on a shelf in a Mom & Pop on Route 147.”

The point, of course, is that it’s a silly question ... except when it isn’t.

Back in 1997, readers found a rather bizarre classified ad on page 92 of the September/October issue of Backwoods Home magazine. It read, in part, “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke ... You’ll get paid after we get back. Safety not guaranteed.” Replies were directed to a Post Office box in Oakview, California.

The ad became a national phenomenon. The guys on National Public Radio’s Car Talk read it aloud; it also was mentioned on other NPR shows. Jay Leno read it on his late-night TV show. Eventually, bewildering and delighted by all the fuss, Backwoods Home staffer John Silveira confessed authorship, explaining that the magazine often used “fillers” when the classified ad section came up short, and that this had simply been a throwaway joke.

Few people ever read Silveira’s explanation, though, and the ad’s sense of enchanted whimsy merely intensified, when it later went viral on the Internet ... which is where it came to the attention of aspiring screenwriter Derek Connolly, until then known solely for the pilot episode of a never-sold TV sitcom, Gary: Under Crisis.

Which brings us to the present day, with Connolly’s debut movie script — Safety Not Guaranteed — having just won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Connolly’s wry, endearing and hilariously arch screenplay would be reason enough to see this charmer, but the film’s highlights don’t stop there. It’s also deftly directed by Colin Trevorrow, who clearly understood the tone required by this gentle slice of whimsy. The result is thoroughly delightful: a mildly peculiar, frequently snarky ode to misfits, very much in the mold of Gregory’s Girl or Benny & Joon.

Trevorrow and Connolly also cast their film well, most notably by granting Aubrey Plaza a well-deserved opportunity to shine in a starring role. She first hit my radar as the only element of merit in 2009’s otherwise dreadful Adam Sandler/Seth Rogen vehicle, Funny People; her part was small but memorable, and for all the right reasons. Even in her few short scenes, she clearly had “it.”

Her ongoing work as a regular on TV’s Parks and Recreation has done much to increase her visibility, but her enchanting performance in this film will make her a highly valued star. And with good reason: Her comic timing is superb, and her presence — her ability to fully inhabit a character, and make every move and gesture seem authentic — is exceptional.

She stars here as Darius, a woebegone, withdrawn young woman utterly unable to navigate the complexities of life and her own emotional fragility. She’s currently “employed” — with no revenue stream — as an intern at Seattle Magazine, where she’s mistreated by the waspish editor-in-chief, Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub, still remembered from TV’s 24).

A bullpen story-pitch session, going nowhere rapidly, comes to life when staffwriter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) mentions having seen the daft classified ad in question. He suggests staking out the Post Office box cited for responses to the ad, with the intent of meeting and interviewing its author; surely, there must be a story in that. Bridget agrees, and allows Jeff to take Darius and another fellow intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), a geeky, mild-manned science major who has taken this job solely to broaden his résumé.

The three set off for Ocean View, Washington, where they park across from the Post Office. Eventually, they spot Box 91’s owner, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and follow him home. But the suspicious and ultra-paranoid Kenneth wants nothing to do with Jeff’s superficial, super-slick and condescending attitude, and so “first contact” responsibility falls to Darius.

Instinctively sensing a similarly lonely, misunderstood and vulnerable spirit, Darius’ approach — as Kenneth stacks soup cans in the store where he works — is a masterpiece of sharp dialogue and sloe-eyed inscrutability. It may be one of cinema’s best-ever “meet cute” scenes, and it merely amplifies the trust we’ve already placed in Connolly’s storyline.

We may not know where the heck this tale is going, but we definitely want to be along for the ride.

Jeff, as it happens, doesn’t mind letting Darius take point on this assignment; he has other plans for their time in Ocean View. He has tracked a long-ago high school crush to this town, and is determined to re-connect with her. Or maybe not. When Jeff finally spots Liz (Jenica Bergere), he’s dismayed by how, ah, zaftig, she has become.

Darius, meanwhile, works hard at gaining Kenneth’s trust: a process that involves practice with pistol marksmanship and “covert” combat training. But for all Kenneth’s obvious earnestness, these boot camp sessions aren’t quite real; they’re more what might be envisioned by a reclusive guy who spends too much time reading survivalist magazines.

Darius knows this; she’s actually quite intelligent, although she takes pains to hide it. But she can’t help falling under the spell of Kenneth’s heartfelt sincerity; he truly, genuinely believes in his preposterous “mission,” details of which he continues to withhold from Darius, until he’s certain that she’s worthy of his trust.

Which, of course, she really isn’t. Except that she is.

Kenneth, it turns out, is the personification of that old adage: Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Although the film gets its momentum from the unfolding mystery — how much time will pass, before Darius reluctantly learns enough to realize that Kenneth is truly bonkers? — we’re captivated throughout by the characters themselves, and the ways in which they interact.

Plaza turns Darius into a young woman who almost isn’t there: forever concealed behind rumpled, unflattering clothes and dark eye-liner, as if she’s unwilling to let the merest breath of her actual self be exposed for the disappointment and ridicule of long experience.

“I expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up,” she confesses, early on; it’s both a bitter aside and an acknowledgment of vulnerability.

And yet, raging insecurities notwithstanding, Darius is the most vibrant presence in this story; Plaza imbues her with spirit, self-mocking awareness and a level of sensitivity wholly alien to a superficial jerk like Jeff. And, yes, Plaza gets the maximum mileage from every one of Connolly’s droll and sharply observed lines.

Duplass, perhaps recognized from TV’s The League, walks a fascinating line; he gives Kenneth both a sweet, fragile innocence and a wary, off-center element of danger. Kenneth’s plans, precautions and bizarre behavior make the guy one short step removed from the wingnuts who stand on street corners, aluminum foil covering their heads, and rattle on about alien waves from outer space.

All this notwithstanding, Duplass never turns Kenneth into a figure of ridicule; he somehow maintains an aura of sweetness and tantalizing mystery, rather than menace.

Johnson, part of the ensemble on TV’s New Girl, does interesting things with Jeff. We’re inclined to dismiss him as a heartless jerk, and yet that’s not entirely the case. Jeff does have feelings; he’s simply not adept at recognizing them, or properly acting on them. Except sometimes, as when he takes an active interest in boosting Arnau’s hopeless social skills.

Soni is a quiet hoot in his own right: a bespectacled science nerd given to hilarious (and accurate) observations, such as the notion that Star Wars stormtroopers are blue-collar workers. At first too timid to register much of a personality, Arnau eventually blossoms in his own droll way.

Bergere is spot-on as the voluptuously earthy Liz, whose eventual reunion with Jeff feels so genuine that it hurts. Jeff Garlin makes the most of an eyeblink cameo as Darius’ father, and Kristin Bell — forever and always TV’s Veronica Mars — pops up as ... actually, I’m not going to tell you. But Bell’s presence proves pivotal.

Indeed, that’s the major thing about this film: As was the case with The Truman Show, you’re better off knowing as little as possible ... which should become difficult, once folks start spreading the word. Safety Not Guaranteed is one of those delightful little surprises we all hope for, as the lights go down and we settle back into our movie theater chairs.

See it quickly, the better to enjoy the unexpected pleasures of Connolly’s wonderfully wry script.

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