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Subverting the Rom-Com

In Safety Not Guaranteed and Lola Versus, 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, as 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 ingenue. Even when given a love-interest role (as in Judd Apatow's Funny People, in which she's a stand-up comic being courted by Seth Rogen while sleeping with his roommate), 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 (opening in Houston June 15) — 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 facade 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.

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?

Safety Not Guaranteed, with Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni and Jake Johnson, is a road-trip rom-com with a light sci-fi spin.
Safety Not Guaranteed, with Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni and Jake Johnson, is a road-trip rom-com with a light sci-fi spin.

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-age 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.

Like Safety Not Guaranteed, Lola Versus (opening in Houston June 22) seems to want to remix the raw material of an indie romance to suit the talents of an atypical leading lady. Directed by Daryl Wein from a screenplay by Wein and Zoe Lister Jones (who also co-stars as a diva pal), the film stars Greta Gerwig as the titular 29-year-old grad student whose boho Manhattan life tailspins after she's dumped by dream dude Luke (Joel Kinnaman) right before their wedding. Smart but spacey, naturally luminous and yet legitimately awkward, Gerwig is perfectly cast as a manic mess whose coping mechanisms include juice cleansing one week and double-fisting 40s the next; impulsively rebounding with a best male friend (Hamish Linklater), then spontaneously showing up at the ex's loft to beg for weed.

Cramming a proposal, frenzied wedding planning and a sudden breakup into its first few minutes, the film lurches as unevenly as its heroine, stringing occasional sharp jokes and sincere observations together with clothes-changing montages, real estate porn and ill-advised expositional dialogue. But as it gets further and further away from the boilerplate fantasy squashed in its first few minutes, Lola Versus gets looser and weirder. About halfway through, a hilariously cringeworthy sex scene (set to Ani DiFranco, no less) brings Wein's gambit into focus: More than subverting or satirizing the modern lady-in-crisis movie, he has made a big, broad stoner comedy, shot and performed naturalistically, from a woman's point of view. Narratively, it's not a huge shock where the film ultimately goes, but there are a number of fun surprises along the way.

At the end of the press screening of Lola, a colleague turned to me and said, "I can't tell if that was a genius subversion of a bad romantic comedy or just kinda bad." Personally, I think it starts as the latter, moves into the realm of the former and ends up somewhere in between. But in its cheeky deflation of the happily-ever-after ethos, Lola is ultimately uninterested in pulling off the magic trick of a sincere romance, which is to actually get us to forget the construction of what we're watching and momentarily, at least, believe in the possibility of love between the people on-screen. Ironically, in practice, this intentionally meta movie feels less subversive than Safety Not Guaranteed. Both films assume their viewer is too cool for rom-com school; Lola feeds on that presumed cynicism, while Safety flips it on its head, ambitiously aiming for a transcendence that it almost achieves.

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