In the slang of the 1920s, “pan” could be synonymous with the word “face,” so maintaining a “dead pan” meant staying expressionless and emotionless to keep from giving away your secrets. “Deadpan” soon stood for the kind of poker-faced comedic demeanor associated with dry humor.
Aubrey Plaza maintains television’s most implacable deadpan on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” She plays intern-turned-assistant April Ludgate as a young person so jaded that putting inflection into her voice seems like too much effort. Over the course of the show April has thawed a little; sometimes she’ll let slip a smile while making withering insults, even though the disdain seldom leaves her eyes.
As the lead in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a low-stakes but charming indie romantic comedy, Plaza at first seems to be playing a variation on April Ludgate. As Darius Britt, she portrays a young college graduate who feels too good for the service industry but underused as a put-upon intern for Seattle magazine. The film soon traces her chilly attitude not to snobbery but to long-simmering grief over her mother’s death.
Darius gets drawn into an adventure when Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), the magazine’s cocky staff writer, pitches a story about an enigmatic classified ad that reads, “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me … Safety not guaranteed.” (A real ad in Backwoods Home magazine in 1997 inspired the screenplay.) Jeff goes to the dreary beach community of Ocean View to research the story, dragging along interns Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni) to do his legwork.
Darius plays Nancy Drew and traces the ad to Kenneth Calloway (actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass), a high-strung grocery store employee working on a device that he believes can be used to travel in time. Pursuing the story in Jeff’s stead, Darius pretends to be a true believer in sci-fi technology and government conspiracies, pleasingly reminiscent of her “Parks and Recreation” role, where she feeds her man-child husband’s fantasy of being an FBI agent. Unlike with April, however, Plaza makes Darius increasingly forthright about her feelings.
Darius wins the trust of intense, lonely Kenneth and she finds him unexpectedly charming, despite his paranoia and general funk of loserdom. She becomes engaged by his enthusiasms and touched by his emotional scars when they share the regrets that motivate their desire to travel back in time and undo past mistakes. Kenneth seems harmless, even when he plans a heist at a high-tech company in an office park, which is a set piece of lighthearted slapstick despite his “Mission: Impossible”-style preparations. But when Darius notices men who look like real government agents tailing Kenneth, she begins to wonder whether he could be the real thing.
Duplass and his brother Jay have co-written and directed several quirky, character-based comedies, including “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” Duplass makes an unlikely comedic lead: with his big, heavy features and peering dark eyes, he could be a middle-American alpha male along the lines of Aaron Eckhart. In “Safety Not Guaranteed,” he plays against his intimidating physical presence and emphasizes the role’s vulnerability and awkwardness. It’s hard to imagine Kenneth being confrontational enough with a real person to pose a threat. The movie deliberately downplays the time-travel premise in favor of the wary relationship between wounded souls.
The film doubles down on its theme of past regrets with a “B” story involving reporter Jeff’s secret agenda — he pitched the assignment in Ocean View mainly to look up his former high school flame to see whether they still have chemistry. This subplot gives Johnson the chance to play Jeff as more than an arrogant douchebag.
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Colin Trevorrow, “Safety Not Guaranteed” reveals itself to be a love story, despite such geeky plot details as time travel and “Star Wars” premises. Where other recent indie rom-coms such as “Lola Versus” and “Friends With Kids” seemed shackled to Hollywood formulae, “Safety” wins our affections by respecting its quirky protagonists and watching them gradually connect. It doesn’t look like your regular romantic comedy, but it makes a much better movie for a date night. Despite her deadpan demeanor, Aubrey Plaza turns out to be a big softy.
Safety Not Guaranteed. With Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass. Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Rated R. 94 minutes. At Regal Tara.