In Safety Not Guaranteed Love Doesn't Mean an Insult to the Audience's Intelligence

With her high cheekbones, feline brown eyes and heart-shaped mouth, actress Aubrey Plaza is bombshell hot. But in an unusual twist for a twentysomething performer at the beginning of her career, Plaza's natural foxiness is a resource that has gone largely unexploited. Not exactly a character actress — she hasn't yet shown much range outside of an arsenal of scowls, snark and withering lethargy — Plaza has also avoided being cast as an ingénue. Even when given a love-interest role (as in Judd Apatow's Funny People), Plaza is never there purely to pretty up the place. If anything, like Depressed Debbie — Plaza's character in Damsels in Distress, a quasi-hostile follower of the tap-dance "therapy" organized by Greta Gerwig's Violet — she's there to put the pretty in their place.

All of which makes it interesting that Safety Not Guaranteed — a road-trip rom-com with a light sci-fi spin that screenwriter Derek Connolly wrote with Plaza in mind — is both the first big starring role for Plaza and the first movie to acknowledge her hotness. Seattle Magazine reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) is on assignment in a sleepy Pacific Northwest coastal town to write an exposé on a guy who put out a classified ad searching for a time-travel partner. He suggests that his intern Darius (Plaza) use the fact that she's a "beautiful woman" to get the story. Darius calls Jeff out for "dangling my vagina out there like bait" — and then she does what she's told, using her feminine wiles to gain entry into the weird world of Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a loner who claims to have built a time machine. Kenneth puts Darius through a lengthy training process in advance of a promised trip back in time to save his lost love; Darius faithfully reports every wrinkle of her adventures to Jeff and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni), even as she finds herself falling for the probable crackpot/possible genius.

Darius might be self-aware that her body is used as a lure, but she doesn't really fight it. Similarly, while director Colin Trevorrow seems to be making a conscious effort to enliven calcified indie rom-com tropes, his film mostly treads through familiar territory. Can a movie in which two people form a genuine intimate connection while lying to each other avoid falling into conventional traps?

But there's a lot of good here, too. Plaza forms an easy, charming chemistry with Duplass, the 35-year-old camera-ready half of Cyrus-directing duo the Duplass Brothers, surprisingly viable here as a nearly middle-aged weirdo. And plot contrivances aside, as indie-film nerd-mances go, this one is genuinely sweet. When it comes to complete fallacies propagated by relationship fiction, the "surprise" romantic victory of the stunning wallflower is, like, top-five worst. But Plaza's portrayal of a woman falling in love with a man who is hopelessly in love with his memory of another woman has believable tension. A viewer's patience with some of Safety's more rote stretches is rewarded in the film's final 15 minutes, when the plot takes a truly unexpected turn. As a DIY answer to the Spielberg generation's nostalgia for movie magic, the film's fully earnest, fantastic climax beats something like Super 8 at its own game — and does it for a fraction of the cost.

 
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