Once we just had movies adapted from novels, and we liked it that way. No more. Now that films are being made out of everything from ‘80s cartoons to board games, I suppose it was only a matter of time before they made one out of a want-ad.
Hence the charming and engaging, if slight, Safety Not Guaranteed, a romantic comedy “adapted” — if that’s the word — from the famous time-travel personal that burbled through the Internet’s LOL-pic pipeline a few years ago. Having missed most of the original buzz, I went in expecting a tagalong documentary in the vein of Winnebago Man or the Mike Ruppert biopic Collapse. Instead, I got a conventional narrative movie, which is ironic since the real ad was a joke, a fiction. Safety fictionalizes the true story about the ad by claiming its author wrote it in earnest, in other words, by saying the ad is true. How po-mo!
Just as po-mo is our disaffected heroine, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), whom we join in the last leg of a foundering job search. You see, instead of following the time-honored script for such encounters, she shares with her barista interviewer her drearily existentialist life story, complete with troubled childhood. Predictably, he snubs her and she winds up indentured at Seattle magazine as an unpaid intern. It’s there, in a brainstorming meeting, that a sleazy reporter (Jake Johnson) suggests doing a story on the time-travel classified and the editor-in-chief greenlights him.
A further revision: the ad here has gone from viral phenomenon to well-kept secret. (When they stake out the author’s P.O. Box, it has only a smattering of responses, whereas the real-life ad got thousands.) Once Jeff, Darius, and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) get to Oceanview to investigate, everything else is quickly flipped on its head as well. We learn that the reporter, so seemingly eager to get to the bottom of the time-travel story, is actually using it as a ruse to reconnect with a high-school flame who lives nearby. Arnau isn’t skilled or interested in journalism at all, and merely hopes to use the internship to bolster his hard-sciences resume with a smattering of “diversity.” Maybe most jarringly, when Darius meets Kenneth What’s-the-Frequency Halloway (Mark Duplass), the ad’s author, he’s neither prankster nor lunatic, but charming oddball. What’s more, he may actually be on to something with his time machine. Another reversal of expectations. Nothing, it seems, is as it seems.
If Safety thwarts expectations, however, it hardly breaks new ground in doing so. Instead it amalgamates existing styles into a pleasing genre pastiche. Safety trades freely between handheld camerawork and tripod shots. (The shooting’s done digitally, by the way; though it doesn’t look bad it does pixilate from time to time, especially in low light, making me pine for the apparently erstwhile days of 35mm film.) It also dips liberally into the indy comedy grab-bag. Take its mellow bliss-rock, Little-Miss-Sunshine-ing soundtrack, or Plaza’s precise performance, which seems to riffle Ghost World’s irritated Enid (Thora Birch) as well as the Gen-Xer-without-a-cause shtick that served Winona Ryder so well in her heyday. Like these predecessors, Plaza’s Darius comes off as distant, dismissive, and sour (and who can blame her, with creeps like Jeff around?), but is appreciative and open to those few who share her quirky sense of spirit. As well, Safety isn’t afraid to dip into sleazier sex comedy slop from time to time, as when Jeff picks up a trio of underage locals for drunken go-cart racing and clumsy intercourse.
Director Colin Trevorrow does try his hand at headier stuff from time to time, and it’s here where Safety most engages, but also most disappoints. Kenneth demands of his would-be co-time-machinists that they be willing to face danger, but also that they know regret and sorrow. The frivolous Jeff is rejected for this, and also because he has no specific reason for wanting to time travel beyond the usual tripe of riding dinosaurs and seeing gladiators fight. Darius assures him she’s ready to face certain danger. Even better, she knows exactly where — er, when — she wants to travel and why, which is to the night of her mother’s death, so she can coach her and thereby avert it. Failing that, as such interventions can warp the time-space continuum, she’d at least like to see her mom off to the beyond in a more fitting fashion. Darius’ last words to the woman who brought her into the world, we learn, were short, impatient ones.
Regrets. Kenneth has like reasons for wanting to bear himself ceaselessly into his own past, and as he and she build their machine, their mostly platonic relationship grows profound on the foundation of their shared sorrows. Anyone who knows this kind of loss, the heart-stone of irrevocably poor words spoken to the soon-to-be-deceased, will feel these moments in the film keenly. To Jeff, a time machine is either a fantasy or a frivolous toy; to Darius and Kenneth, it’s their last remaining option.
These poignant elements, alas, are well established but then unexplored. Time and again we dip into the duo’s tragic backstories only to be distracted or led into an aside. Or, a plot device is introduced in the form of a box that their time-traveling alter egos are to leave notes in if something goes wrong, as a warning to their present selves. The moviemakers, presumably, wanted to avoid pitching Safety in too melancholy a key. This is understandable from a marketing point of view, but leaves the film diminished: you get the feeling there’s something more it wants to say, but hasn’t.
Safety’s most creative and original moments, on the other hand, come in what I’ll tentatively call its “action scenes.” During a tepid pursuit scene, Kenneth — driving a ‘70s vintage 280-Z — is dogged by shadowy men in black and, in turn, Jeff and company in their Escalade. (“He’s all freaked out, he thinks people are following him,” Darius explains, following him.) These scenes are choreographed with a hilarious abortive realism, and end up resembling Mission Impossible and Matrix Reloaded about as much as real sex resembles hardcore porn. Fumbling, halting, and almost entirely devoid of thrills, they’re also hilarious.
What’s more, I felt I was seeing something new: cinematic thrill scenes with the cinema removed, as though you and I had chased each other’s cars down the nearest two-lane road, or broken into the computer warehouse at the corner industrial park. Where Trevorrow is elsewhere deft at recombining available tropes, here he feels genuinely inventive. It’s easy to praise him and the other filmmakers here, but at the same time I’m reminded in that exception-to-the-rule way that, given the movie’s strange premise, I’d expected less recombination of existing genres, and something more in the way of genuine invention.