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MOVIE REVIEWS: Aubrey Plaza shines in superb 'Safety Not Guaranteed'

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This undated film image released by FilmDistrict shows Aubrey Plaza, left, and Mark Duplass in a scene from "Safety Not Guaranteed." (AP Photo/FilmDistrict)

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

(R)

4 out of 4 stars

It happened with "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno" and kind of with "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." It most certainly took place with "Pulp Fiction," "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Blair Witch Project." These were all independently produced art-house movies that went on to do unexpectedly huge business at the box office while enjoying almost-universal critical acclaim. It's quite rare and it could happen to "Safety Not Guaranteed" if enough folks spread the word.

Based on a real advertisement placed in a magazine (that also made it on to a segment of "The Tonight Show"), the plot centers around three writers who believe there's a juicy story behind this: "Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." That's what they call a "meaty hook." No one in their right mind could resist something this intriguing; but then again you might also not be of a right mind if you do.

With little to lose and everything to gain, loner and introvert Darius (Aubrey Plaza, "Parks and Recreation") asks for the gig. She's partnered with fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) who will both work with/for Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), the established paid writer who takes the job only because it will put him in close proximity to his high-school flame Liz (Jenica Bergere).

While Jeff is busy pursuing Liz, Darius and Arnau quickly identify the guy who placed the ad. He's Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a grocery store clerk who is brilliant but socially awkward and very paranoid. He believes the government is tailing him and is bent on preventing his assembly of a machine that will take him back in time in order to right a wrong that took place in 2001.

A failure at everything she's ever done (she can't even get a job as a waitress because she's deemed too surly), Darius takes to this investigative journalism thing like breathing. Egged on by Jeff to use her offbeat feminine wiles to lull Kenneth into taking her on as a partner, Darius corners him at his store and glides through one of the best pick-up sequences in movie history. Kenneth is an instant goner and so are we. With this single scene, Plaza establishes herself as the next art-house "it" girl.

Possessing mesmerizing brown sanpaku eyes and a haunting air of impossibly genuine approachability, Plaza is Natalie Wood in tennis shoes and jeans minus the often-times strained perkiness. While it certainly has a lot to do with the Darius character being written so authentically, it is mostly Plaza's perfect rendering of her that makes such an indelible imprint. Darius is a woman who is unaware of her striking outward beauty and doesn't quite realize that it is her odd ticks and endearing insecurities that make her all the more attractive and likeable.

Often behind the camera collaborating with his co-director brother Jay, Duplass (appearing in no less than four 2012 movies) is the ideal co-lead for Plaza. Not exactly leading-man handsome, Duplass, too, has a commanding screen presence who isn't afraid of looking like a dork if need be. As with Plaza in the store sequence, the scene where he serenades Darius (while playing a lute) in the woods will melt any woman's heart.

Because "SNG" had a typical indie low budget, it looks kind of ... well, low budget. Shot in Seattle and its nearby beaches, "SNG" is still able to pull off a few visual feats but it is the screenplay by Derek Connolly and the economic direction from Colin Treverrow that cement the movie's perfect tone and execution. It is also the first feature film effort for both men.

Don't waste any time -- see this movie at once. It's difficult to fully describe the depth and breadth of what the film encapsulates. "SNG" builds slowly but steadily and there is not a word, glance, inflection or frame that doesn't serve a greater purpose to the whole. This is all the more impressive as it is only 94 minutes long.

Coming out on the same day as three major Hollywood assembly-line clunkers, "SNG" is a veritable cinematic oasis. It'll make you laugh, might make you cry and will certainly warm your heart while lifting your spirits up more than you could imagine. (FilmDistrict)