Based on a real classified ad placed in Backwoods Home Magazine back in 1997 (which itself was a goof, though it was picked up by a number of outlets as if it was the real deal), Safety Not Guaranteed stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius, a downbeat (because Aubrey Plaza) intern at a Seattle magazine who is chosen to accompany a douchey reporter (Jake Johnson) on a road trip to investigate a mysterious ad that reads:
The casting of Aubrey Plaza is key here, because irony and sarcasm are her default modes -- her enormous eyes were practically made for rolling. That's why it carries so much more weight when her defenses begin to melt in the presence of Kenneth's steadfast belief and commitment to something fantastic. She wants sincerity, even if she hasn't realized it. Mark Duplass has a much trickier role, making Kenneth believably eccentric without overdoing the crazy, always hinting at the damaged layers beneath (it seems for a time that the movie is going to take him into some Fisher King territory, but, to the movie's credit, that is sidestepped). Duplass has quickly become one of those actors I will gladly watch in anything (which is good, since he's showing up in everything). He's natural and likable but never trying too hard to be liked -- there is an undercurrent of something...call it hostility, call it an "edge" -- to his performances that keeps an audience on their toes. Interesting, too, that he co-wrote and co-directed (with his brother Jay) Jeff, Who Lives at Home earlier this year, as it, too, addresses how much sincerity we will allow to guide our choices.
Jake Johnson has his own subplot that, for a while, feels a lot like a sitcom B-story. It's only as the movie progresses that his story comes into focus: he's just another person haunted by a memory from his past, attempting to go back in time in a much more conventional sense. Some of his scenes with Karan Soni, playing the geeky, virginal intern who rounds out the journalist trio, don't quite ring as true as other scenes; the pair feels more like characters in a movie in their worst moments. And, yet, it all comes down to changing the future. Johnson, perhaps resigned to his present, sees an opportunity to alter the destiny of another character for the better. On that level, the scenes work.
This weekend, I also had the chance to see Wes Anderson's latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom, which actually works as a really interesting companion piece to Safety Not Guaranteed: both movies are about feeling like an outsider and constructing an elaborate fantasy to deal with that, and about how those fantasies are better when shared with someone else. When just one person believes in it, it remains a fantasy. When two people believe it, it becomes something real. The greatness in both movies is in their ability to make us believe it, too.
Some movies just know how to push our buttons. Safety Not Guaranteed pushed a whole bunch of mine. It's one of my favorite movies of the year.