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'Safety Not Guaranteed' review: Love, innovation and other dangers

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

June 14, 2012

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***1/2 (out of four)

Someone not paying attention to details may dismiss “Safety Not Guaranteed” as a standard indie quirkfest, featuring goofy characters, outrageous situations and the inevitable musical performance on an obscure instrument.

For the right kind of romantic, though, “Safety” offers pure outsider catharsis. Aubrey Plaza lends more layers than ever to her typical moodiness as Darius, whose Seattle Magazine internship brings her, a shy fellow intern (Karan Soni), and an irresponsible reporter (Chicago native Jake M. Johnson of “New Girl”) looking to reconnect with an ex to a seaside Washington town. There, they track down Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who published an ad seeking a partner to join him on a time-travel mission where safety isn’t guaranteed. (Note: Someone really did run an ad like that in a magazine.)

Jeff (Johnson) diagnoses Kenneth as a guy off his hinges but gets no information. Darius, who’s drawn to Kenneth’s offbeat enthusiasm, must become part of the story to get the story, posing as a potential companion without revealing her journalistic intentions to the paranoid Kenneth.

“Can you look fear and danger in the eye?” Kenneth asks. How many people can answer in the affirmative? With a low-key charm that remains entertaining even when landing on the milder side of funny, “Safety Not Guaranteed” builds into a surprisingly affecting essay on a world that mistakenly considers itself enlightened and on people who aren’t as smart as they think. Darius’ mom passed away when she was a kid—a time when she was picked on constantly and, she says, had a mustache until the age of 14. Now, though, others assume her life bounces along without fault simply because she’s pretty. Meanwhile, sex-obsessed Jeff must decide what he really wants from his ex (Jenica Bergere), who may see his opinion as legit or absurd.

Duplass brings sensitivity to a man whose denim jacket, fixation on laser technologies and certainty that he’s being recorded/followed nearly brands him as a joke. We’re supposed to see him like that. “Safety Not Guaranteed” works because perception and selective memory aren’t always what we think or want them to be, and love doesn’t always go the way you expect. This convergence of wounded souls doesn’t rewrite the indie formula, but it’s enough to make you a believer again.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais