Safety Not Guaranteed was the Closing Night film at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and a fine choice it was, something pretty much everyone could agree on: an American indie comedy with brains to spare and a geeky sci-fi twist. Financed by mumblecore impresarios Jay and Mark Duplass (Mark also co-stars) and directed by Colin Trevorrow, Safety premiered at Sundance and looks on its way to being one of this year’s bigger independent hits. Deservedly so: it’s the kind of comedy that comes around only once in a while – fresh, original, as full of heart as it is cheeky and hilarious. With only a handful of characters, a small-town setting and a simple but ingenious premise, it runs rings around the sad, stupid raunchy comedies churned out by the big studios.
Though it was meant to be a celebratory occasion, watching it on Closing Night was a bit melancholy for me. I’d been told it may be the last actual celluloid film screened at SFF. (There were only a few of them this year; it’s become too expensive to deal with them.) With this in mind I was even more impressed by the look of the film, with its nicely subdued color palette and plenty of overcast natural light from the Pacific Northwest setting – it’s quite beautiful for a low-budget comedy. And I appreciated each grain and defect, each pop before the reel change. This added something extra to what is a uniquely touching film.
I don’t want to give away much, so I’ll stick with what you probably know from the trailer, if you watch trailers. (I don’t.) Jake Johnson plays Jeff, a lazy, sleazy, wisecracking Seattle magazine reporter who, for his own selfish reasons, concocts a scheme to research an article in the town of Ocean View based on a crackpot’s anonymous classified ad about time travel. He recruits two misfit interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) to do all the work for him and the three of them embark on a road trip in Jeff’s Escalade. From there, the narrative has many stops and starts, many sparks and discoveries and changes of heart. The crackling screenplay, written by Derek Connolly (remember that name) in his feature-film debut, balances the silly hijinks and sentiment of early Wes Anderson with some of the shambolic good fun of Judd Apatow at his best, adding a generous dash of the loopy genre-bending mindgames of Charlie Kaufman. Yes, it’s good enough to merit those comparisons. From the first scene, Safety filled me with that rare, delicious feeling, the same you got the first time you saw, say, Bottle Rocket: the feeling that here are some filmmakers who can entertain and captivate using the symbols and language of common experience, who can create fantasy out of day-to-day life, without falling back on cliché (even when maybe a couple of clichés would be forgivable). And it’s a bouyant, confident feeling of being along for a great ride, an aching certainty that dawns on you during the second reel: They aren’t going to screw this up!
There’s also a terrific economy to the story. The film is only 85 minutes long; the capers get under way in the first few minutes, with little exposition. Though there’s one important sub-plot crucial to the emotional arc of Johnson’s character, there’s no other fat, no filler, nothing wasted. Yet still there’s a lot going on, and the screenplay keeps you guessing, keeps you invested until the brilliant payoff in the very last scene.
The acting is outstanding. I understand all the key cast members are known for their work on TV. IMPORTANT NOTE: I don’t watch TV. I had little idea who these people were beforehand, but here I can tell you they’re inspired. Mark Duplass is great in the Owen Wilson-ish/Jeff Daniels-ish role of the nerdy loner with a plan. He and Johnson both portray awkward older guys driven by painful loneliness and regret – guys whom a lot of us can relate to I suspect – folding these bitter ingredients in with the laughs in a holistic way that adds resonance to both. I gotta admit I damned near cried a couple of times.
I can’t say enough about Plaza’s performance as Darius. Trevorrow joked before the screening that he’s had a lot of geeks and fanboys asking for her number. I am not going to deny it; she’s super cute, loveable even, and I wanted to join Team Aubrey after like three minutes. But it’s more than that: in her first leading role in a feature she’s a wonder, elevating the film with her perfect modulation between deadpan cynicism, incredulity and then, slowly, a gentle kind of openness. It’s a bit Ellen Page, a bit classic Brat Pack, and a lot of her own thing. Darius comes across like a young woman you might meet in real life – which is to say, something almost never seen on a big screen – and her motivations and feelings are revealed a little at a time in a lovely unstudied way. If we didn’t believe her character (and its transformation) the story would have nowhere near the depth it does. It’s a breakthrough turn for Plaza at the center of a sparkling, joyful film.