It's easy, I suppose, to sing the praises of Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation; the web series Troopers). Here, as Darius, an intern working for a glossy, trendy Seattle magazine, she's droll, melancholy, and transcendent in equal measures. (And of course there are those jeepers-creepers peepers that appear to swallow the whole world and find it wholly wanting. Throw me a rope, please.) The title’s slippery, spanner-in-the-works allusion to normal life, total loss, and tentative love is what makes the film flow as well and richly as it does, but it's Plaza's wide-eyed conviction that makes the whole thing ring true.
Along with jerkish writer Jeff (Johnson) and cautious fellow intern Arnau (Soni), Darius sets out to unravel the mystery behind a bizarre personal ad referencing an impossibility – "WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. … Must bring your own weapons. … Safety not guaranteed." The wellspring of screenwriter Derek Connolly's script is a personal ad from Backwoods Home Magazine circa 1997, which, after making the Internet rounds, turned out to have been written by Editor John Silveira. No matter. It's a gem of a story.
The flimsy "investigation," which Jeff uses as an excuse to hook up with an old high school flame (the fantastic Bergere), reveals Kenneth (Duplass, in what deserves to be the indie actor’s breakout role), an earnest and seemingly unsound, erstwhile time bandit hoping to correct a past romantic mistake. Sweetly paranoid and with guns, laser thefts, and shady government types hovering about his periphery, Kenneth is clearly delusional, and yet …. He both complements and answers Darius' endless emotional pall. A sly variation on the "manic pixie dream girl," Plaza plays Darius opposite from the way you might expect: She's anything but manic and whatever pixie dust this wounded character may have at one time possessed has curdled into a sour broth of emotional solitude and inner insecurities. Who's fooling who? And who's only fooling themselves? The beautiful, helpless grin on her face as she marathons through the forest with Kenneth answers all.
Safety Not Guaranteed is bound to be compared to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's nothing like that film however, less of a philosophical argument and more of a character piece driven deep into the heart by Duplass and Plaza. It's smaller, possibly wiser, and certainly less likely to find the audience it deserves. Still, I found myself falling for it, hard. It's Trevorrow's feature debut and we'd like to see more, please.