Imagine opening your hometown newspaper to find the following wanted ad in the classified section: "WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."
After reading the above ad, what would be your reaction? Would you respond to the peculiar ad or would you flip to the next page of the newspaper? An even better, or at least a more pertinent, question is would you watch a movie about it?
Your answer to the last question could determine whether or not you decide to sit down to "Safety Not Guaranteed," the directorial debut from Colin Trevorrow. In the film, three newspaper employees are tasked with seeking out and interviewing the man who placed the previously mentioned classified in a local newspaper. The idea to do so can be credited to Jeff, played by Jake Johnson, who thinks that the ad had to have been placed either as a joke or by somebody who isn't of sound mind. Interns Arnau (Karan Soni) and Darius (Aubrey Plaza) volunteer to ride along. As reluctant as each of the three is to write the story, the experience ends ups changing them all in completely different ways.
When looking at the film in its entirety, however, it is evident that much of it hinges on the actions of Kenneth, the man who placed the ad in the paper. Kenneth is played masterfully by Mark Duplass. When we first meet Kenneth, we think he's a little crazy. Luckily, that doesn't turn out to be the case. After all, a film with a main character who we are unable to relate to on some small level would ruin the film. Luckily, Duplass creates a character with great depth. Kenneth is quirky; there's no doubt about that. Still there is a likability to him and as the reason for his quirky behavior is revealed late in film, we find a bit of ourselves in this seemingly far-removed character. The similarities that bring Kenneth and Darius are what really make this film work. With exceptional performances coming from Duplass and Plaza, it should come as no surprise that "Safety Not Guaranteed" turns out to be a highlight in the first half of the year. In the female lead, Plaza is able to show us her true range. I've enjoyed her comedic performances before, but I always wanted something a little more from her. She's great at her dead-pan delivery of some of the film's greatest lines, but it is when she reveals something deep about her character's motivations that we can truly appreciate the overall performance.
While the characters of Kenneth and Darius are exceptional, those of Jeff and Arnau help to create some of the minor problems I had with the film. While Kenneth and Darius seem fully fleshed out, Jeff and Arnau seem to be slightly underdeveloped. Each shows signs of small growth at some point in the film, but at the end of the movie I couldn't help but realize that each stops short of showing some true dimensional growth. I'm not saying that we should expect the characters to change altogether; I'm only saying that each is put in situations which we expect to change them. At the end of the film, we learn that's not the case.
Still, in a slow-moving year of film "Safety Not Guaranteed" is easily one of the best films of the year thus far. It is filled with great characters that deliver some of the year's snappiest dialogue, and it also features a convincing love story at its center that forces us to question what we should really be looking for in a soul mate. Perhaps even more important is the fact that it makes us answer the time tested question regarding happiness: what does it take to create a life full of happiness?