Films can be predictable things. Romantic comedies as a genre are one the most formulaic there is. Guy meets girl, they hit it off, some small obstacles are placed in their way, they overcome them, usually involving a big gesture and the live happily ever after. Then, every once in a while a romantic comedy comes along that goes a different route. A more realistic route. These include realistic characters, living their lives and hopefully finding love, but sometimes not. And in the case of the Duplass Brothers-produced, Colin Trevorrow-directed Safety Not Guaranteed they start with a newspaper classified ad that reads:
“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a young intern at Seattle Magazine who is selected by one of the senior journalists, Jeff (Jake Johnson) to investigate the above classified ad as part of a fluff piece. Upon driving to Ocean View, the team find the man behind the ad is a loner shop assistant called Kevin Calloway (Mark Duplass), whom Darius befriends under the guise of someone who wants to accompany him. While Jeff seeks out a former flame, Darius gets closer to Kevin and her past begins to bleed into her performance and she starts to want to believe that he’s telling the truth.
Anyone familiar with the mumblecore roots of The Duplass Brothers will understand the tone and style of Safety Not Guaranteed. The characters are quirky, although never annoying, and their concerns are very much in the here and now. There’s an almost Wes Anderson quality to Trevorrow’s direction although heavily scaled back. The beach-side setting allows room for long talks by fire light, will the one-liners are handled with both energy and deep pathos by the excellent Plaza and Johnson. Duplass’ oddball genius/sociopath performance is reminiscent of an older, saggier Paul Rudd, but it’s impossible not to be taken in by his almost naive charm.
Where Safety Not Guaranteed really succeeds is the blend of deep emotional characterisation and quirky dialogue. The scenes between Kevin and Darius are heart-warming, while the Jeff and his former-flame story arc is as satisfyingly believable with a payoff that is hilarious, while everything is tinged with the sadness of a group of people who are deeply sad. As is the case with many smartly made comedies, Safety Not Guaranteed appreciates that the funniest comedy is that rooted in tragedy and the title becomes more meaningful as the startling plot unfolds before your eyes. Even the ending, which could have been heavy-handedly botched is perfectly balanced and makes sense within the internal logic of the film, giving Safety Not Guaranteed a nourishing finale to it’s whimsical first two acts.
Colin Trevorrow is clearly a director to watch as his handling of a narrative that could’ve been played purely for laughs, or made into a over-ripe quirky mess is actually developed into a perfectly formed story. Unpredictable, unbelievable and thoroughly engrossing, Safety Not Guaranteed is one of the more surprising romantic comedies and it’ll keep you guessing all the way to the very end. This film is certainly not a joke.