Safety Not Guaranteed
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
"So what's your story about?" a government agent asks a reporter as this strenuously wistful rom-com winds to a close. "Oh, the story. I don't know any more, actually," the reporter replies. Meta moments like that, which may well have helped Derek Connelly's screenplay win the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance this year, keep popping up like self-conscious party guests, blurting out things that may sound terribly significant but rarely turn out not to mean much after all.
Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), the reporter, has nabbed himself an out-of-town assignment that should only take a day or two, since it's something of a lark: He's profiling a man who ran a personal ad soliciting a partner to travel back in time with him. But he's using the trip as an excuse to hook back up with an old girlfriend he hasn't seen in 20 years and has never been able to stop thinking about, so he takes much longer. He's brought two interns to help get the story (even if nothing else tips you off to the fact that this film is a fantasy, the money Jeff's alternative weekly shells out for his story should do the trick).
The three quip their way along the Washington state coastline to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the possibly unstable misfit who ran the ad. Kenneth looks harried and saggy-eyed under his bad shag haircut, and he sometimes sounds certifiably insane, but you know from the start that he's probably okay because he's friends with the elderly Magical Negro he works with.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza), our heroine and the only one of the interns who matters (Karan Soni's Arnau is completely expendable, despite the touching nerdish dignity Soni radiates), gets Kenneth to take her on as his trip partner. And then, amid lots of unclever doubletalk about partnerships and trust, they fall for each other, the ancient gravitational pull of romantic comedy trumping even Kenneth's powerful serial-killer vibe.
Darius and Jeff's parallel love affairs give Connelly plenty of opportunities to buttonhole us on the importance of old-school values like being sincere, aging gracefully, and learning to trust. Meanwhile, a generous overlay of Sundance-style indie "authenticity" and insta-soul (an underlying sense of sadness permeates all the main characters) tries to make it all feel fresh. That can make for a pretty lumpy mix, though the retro of the DIY overlay merges nicely with the plain-vanilla retro of the rest in the endearingly low-tech, Flash Gordon-ish ending.
Plaza plays pretty much the same eye-rolling skeptic as always, ladling on the sarcasm as she gazes up at some poor sucker through those darkly outlined eyes. But director Colin Trevorrow gives her plenty of opportunities to shade in that portrait, salting in montages of Darius cavorting like a giddy kid with Kenneth or relaxing into tenderness as the two spend a romantic night outdoors. She even looks conventionally hot for a change, the camera often lingering to admire her slender legs in a cute little dress or strategically lightened pair of jeans.
She can't make the whole thing work, but she does provide some enjoyable moments, delivering funny lines and making the central romance believable. By loving the borderline creepy Kenneth so convincingly, Plaza's Darius convinces us that he is loveable.
Opens June 8