To me, acting falls into two categories: transformational and charismatic. Transformational performances are those where the actor becomes another person, undergoing significant physical changes to convince us that they have become someone else. Examples of this would be Charlize Theron in Monster, Gary Oldman in Churchill and Renee Zellweger in Judy. The physical transformations typically include weight gain or loss, application of makeup, and an uncanny impersonation of vocal and other mannerisms. These performances are usually tagged as “Oscar bait”, universally applauded and admired as feats of skill.
Charismatic performances are those where the actor essentially plays themselves, or a minor variation of themselves. There may be some physical transformation involved, but we believe that the person we see on screen is the person we believe we would meet in real life. Actors that fall into this category include Morgan Freeman, Tom Cruise, Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Hart.
In devising these two categories, I’m not making the claim that one is better than the other. In some ways, being oneself in front of a camera and crew over a period of weeks or months may be more challenging than applying makeup, speaking in an accent and learning to walk with a limp. From a viewing standpoint, I enjoy seeing Tom Hanks play Tom Hanks in each movie he is in, just as much as I admire watching Glenn Close or Meryl Streep play a completely different person in each movie they star in.
Which brings us to Aubrey Plaza. She stars in Safety Not Guaranteed, a movie from 2012. Directed by Colin Trevorrow three years before he directed Jurassic World, I hadn’t heard of the movie until I read an article on Inverse recommending it. The movie had a very brief theatrical run and was acquired by Netflix, where it sits buried underneath a pile of content of varying quality. My wife and I watched it the other day, and I was charmed by its quirky sincerity. My wife was less taken with it. With the exception of her husband, she’s not as appreciative of quirky things as I am.
Aubrey Plaza definitely falls into the “playing themselves” acting category. I hadn’t seen her in many roles prior to this movie, mostly episodes of Parks and Recreation and Legion and the movie Ingrid Goes West in 2017. Her reputation precedes her as a young, beautiful lady with a sarcastic wit. (If you don’t believe me, go on YouTube and watch the videos of her appearances on late night talk shows.) There are a few other actresses that play in this sandbox, like Ellen Page (Juno), Zooey Dashinel (The Good Girl) and Thora Birch (Ghost World). While Hollywood has given plenty of opportunities for handsome yet quirky male actors to thrive (Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, etc.), quirky actresses typically wind up playing the perky, understanding and eventual redeeming element for the male lead. Now that Aubrey Plaza has carved out her niche as a pretty sourpuss, I hope that she continues to find material that is well suited to her.
In Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, an intern working at a magazine in Seattle, suffering fools greatly on a daily basis. She wields her sarcasm like a shield against the world. Her supervisor Jeff (Jake Johnson) is convinced she is a lesbian simply because she doesn’t fawn over him and smile approvingly at his bro-humor.
Darius lives a quiet life with her dad at home. Even he notices that she never goes out on dates. One day, during the magazine’s daily writers roundtable, Jeff proposes to investigate a bizarre personal ad. The ad states:
Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.
Darius immediately volunteers to go on the investigation. She heads up to the Washington coast to Ocean Viewwith Jeff and another intern named Arnau (Karan Soni, Deadpool) to find out who placed the ad and write a story about that person.
As the story progresses, Darius reveals her true motive for volunteering for the trip. Years ago, her mother left home and never returned. Darius provides two explanations for what happened. Since her mother left, Darius’ life has been a listless void and a huge disappointment. Going back in time sounds like a good option. Maybe she can stop her mother from leaving.
The person behind the ad is Kenneth (Mark Duplass). He works at a local grocery store and lives alone in a house left to him by his parents. He’s a survival nut, convinced that he’s being followed by government agents. Darius is dubious at his claim for being able to travel back in time, but his utter conviction and complete lack of self-awareness win her over. Unlike guys like Jeff, who is completely full of himself, Kenneth is only focused on the mission and training Darius to survive it. He teaches her how to shoot a gun and various self-defense moves, because time travel is inherently dangerous.
If Mark Duplass played Kenneth any differently, the movie would not work at all. Instead of cynically playing Kenneth as someone to be mocked and jeered at, Duplass portrays Kenneth as utterly serious yet genial. He has a hound dog charm to him, even though he rarely smiles. You could make an argument that his behavior is borderline Asperger’s, or maybe even paranoid schizophrenia. Ultimately, his guileless nature breaks down Darius’s defenses. They are both outsiders in the worlds they inhibit, using defense mechanisms they’ve developed since they were teenagers to get through a world that would destroy them if they let it.
But what are those defense mechanisms based on? Just like Darius gives two explanations for her mother’s absence, we hear two explanations for a key event driving Kenneth to go back in time. Which one do we believe? And who do we believe? Kenneth tells Darius that the desire to go back in time is based in regret. Both have made mistakes in the past that haunted them well into adulthood, so going back in time to undo those mistakes sounds reasonable.
I can see why Colin Treverrow was chosen to direct Jurassic World. He has a natural talent for telling a story on screen. All of the actors give excellent performances here. One complaint I have is that while the movie gives the characters of Darius and Jeff complete character arcs, Arnau’s is more or less an afterthought. Sure, he gets to have some fun on a Friday night, but we don’t hear anything from him afterwards. Another couple minutes of dialog between him and Darius would have been nice.
As I mentioned early on, this is a quirky movie. If you can make it through the self defense and weapons training sessions without chuckling in cynicism, I believe you’ll enjoy this movie. (There is a scene later in the movie where a character serenades another with a zyther that certainly will test your willpower.) The ending was a satisfying one, showing conviction on behalf of the filmmakers to go where the story leads, instead of doing a fake-out and claiming that a character was just crazy after all.
To paraphrase a character in the movie, I hope both of them get where they want to go, and it all works how they want. See you at the Aubrey Plaza film festival!