PARK CITY - It took long enough, but the 2012 Sundance Film Festival finally produced a big winner. The feature debut of Colin Trevorrow, "Safety Not Guaranteed," premiered Sunday evening to a festival looking to embrace something (anything entertainingly good) and this new comedy absolutely fit the bill.
Inspired by the fake 1997 newspaper ad from a man asking for a partner to go back in time with ("this is not a joke") which eventually became a 2005ish internet meme, "Safety" begins with unemployed Seattle Magazine intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) wondering when she was last happy in her life. Was it college? High school? When she was young enough to enjoy the wonders of life? Certainly before her mother died during her adolescence. We quickly segue to her internship where she's at the beck and call of a crabby editor-in-chief (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and one of its snarky late thirtysomething writers, Jeff ("New Girl's" Jake Johnson). During a brainstorm session for the magazine, Jeff suggests they investigate the person behind a newspaper ad similar to the 1997 fake ad. The boss bites and Jeff, Darius and another intern brought along for comic relief, Amau (talented newcomer Karan Soni), head to the coast where they hope to find their mystery time traveler. The trio soon discover Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a seemingly off-kilter supermarket clerk who knows a bit too much about quantum physics and is convinced he's being tracked by the government. Eventually, Darius convinces Kenneth she's the partner he's looking for and they begin serious "training" which includes stealing parts from a nearby laser company.
Jeff becomes quickly convinced Kenneth is nuts and lets Darius do most of the investigating for the story while he searches for long lost high school hook up Liz (Jenica Bergere). Hardly the girl she was 20 years ago, his former flame just happens to live in the same town as the time traveler placed the ad. It's a secondary storyline that gives Johnson more screen time than you'd expect and allows him to flesh out his character a bit more (he's not just a snarky jerk, he's a snark jerk with a heart). Jeff also intends to make sure Amau leaves his laptop and loses his virginity to one of the local teenage girls hanging outside the liquor store. Johnson and Bergere have nice chemistry together in a plot that certainly slows things down a bit, but Trevorrow's hilarious handling of Jeff's drunk-binge that makes it all worthwhile.
As the movie progresses, Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly keep the audience guessing as to whether Kenneth is just crazy or really knows what he's doing. Duplass doesn't really play Kenneth for obvious laughs which makes him a bit of a straight man for Plaza and Johnson's one-liners. If Kenneth was more in the Jim Carrey over-the-top mold, the film's exhilarating ending wouldn't have as much unexpected emotion as it winds up conveying.
The most significant thing Hollywood will learn from "Safety" is that Plaza can more than carry a movie (mostly) on her own. The 28-year-old actress is more personable as Darius than her "Parks and Recreation" character while still providing that droll delivery she's become known for on the small screen and in comedy clubs. Johnson should also get a boost from "Safety" as he proves he can join the new crop of leading man comedy stars leading men such as Jason Suedikis and Charlie Day.
A fierce domestic bidding war should ensue for "Guaranteed," but only for the right price. The film is a total charmer, but a gross higher than $15 million would still be surprising based on Plaza, Johnson and Duplass' lack of broad star power. Nevertheless, an acquisition could be finalized by the time you read this review.
Ryan Miller from Guster is credited for an energetic and euphoric score.
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