With her high cheekbones, feline brown eyes, and heart-shaped mouth, actress Aubrey Plaza is bombshell hot. But in an unusual twist for a 20-something performer at the beginning of her career, Plaza's natural foxiness is a resource that has gone largely unexploited. Not exactly a character actress, as she hasn't yet shown much range outside of an arsenal of scowls, snark, and withering lethargy, Plaza also has avoided being cast as an ingenue. 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 tap-dance "therapy" — 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 also the first movie to acknowledge her hotness. Seattle Magazine reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson), 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, suggests that his intern Darius (Plaza) use the fact that she's a "beautiful woman" to get the story.
A typical Plaza tough cookie patly softened by her pre-opening-credits admission that her sarcastic façade can be traced back to the death of her mom, 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 hermit 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.
Safety Not Guaranteed: Subverting the Rom-Com
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Darius might be self-aware that her body is being 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 and Duplass (the 35-year-old camera-ready half of Cyrus-directing duo the Duplass Brothers, surprisingly viable here as a nearly middle-aged weirdo) have an easy, charming chemistry, 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 for a fraction of the cost.