‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ Outshines Its Intriguing Premise

The recent theatrical release of Looper has brought time travel to the forefront and left viewers scratching their heads trying to pull all the plot strands together. It’s an intriguing approach that inspires discussion, but in lesser hands, it can push the characters to the background.

Resting in a different stratosphere is Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, which offers a low-key take on the genre. In this case, we’re not even sure if this is a sci-fi movie or just a quirky tale of a guy who’s separated from reality. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) submits a classified ad in the newspaper looking for a partner to travel back in time with. That person must bring their own weapons, a request that makes him sound a bit off his rocker. The premise comes from a real newspaper ad that was placed to fill space by an employee. This case is a bit different, but it makes for a clever set-up for a movie.

The main character is Darius, played with a casual grace by Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation. This part has some of the dry humor of her television persona, but it also contains a lot of heart. Darius works as an intern for Seattle Magazine and lives at home with her dad (Jeff Garlin). She’s never really recovered from the death of her mom when she was 14. This regret casts a shadow over her life and makes it difficult to care too much about anything.

Darius joins the arrogant reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) for an investigation into Kenneth’s exploits. They travel to the town of Ocean View to make contact and figure out the type of person that would write that classified ad. When Jeff has an unsuccessful attempt to interview Kenneth, it’s up to Darius to find a way to get the story.

This movie could easily fall into the trap of painting Kenneth as a quirky guy who’s charming because he’s so out of it. The refreshing part of Derek Connolly’s screenplay is the way it subverts those expectations and makes him a fairly normal guy. He works at a local grocery store and spends his days rambling about time travel, but he’s hardly anti-social.

It’s easy to understand why Darius connects with him, especially since they both have regrets about a past loss. It may sound like heavy material, but Trevorrow and Connolly keep the tone light as their relationship grows. When Kenneth serenades her by the campfire and their romance begins, it feels natural and doesn’t seem like a plot requirement. She’s hiding the reason why she arrived from him, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t developed a true bond.

A counterpoint to this relationship is Jeff’s attempt to reconnect with Liz (Jenica Bergere), a girlfriend from his younger days. She can’t possibly live up to his perfect image of her, but there’s still a spark between them. While he’s ready to do anything to keep it going, Liz understands that his idealistic vision is too simple. Similar to Kenneth and Darius, Jeff is looking back to the past and wondering if he could change it. He doesn’t believe in time travel and is just using Kenneth’s story to see Liz, but there’s a similar theme between the stories.

Jeff comes off like a jerk in the early scenes, but there’s more depth as the story progresses. His attempts to hook Arnau up with a girl might be misguided, but his heart is in the right place. The nerdy intern also becomes something different than he seems at the start, which is a sign of an excellent script.

This DVD release includes a limited number of extras that only total about 17 minutes. There’s a very brief two-minute feature with John Silveira, who actually put the original classified ad in Backwoods Home Magazine back in 1997. I could have easily heard more from the guy, who makes a cameo at the PO Box in the movie before Kenneth arrives.

The other featurette, titled “A Movie Making Mission”, provides a 15-minute overview of the production. It’s mostly composed of interviews with Trevorrow, Duplass, and others to describe the actors and some of the big scenes. There’s also an Easter Egg that’s easily accessible through the Special Features menu. It’s a brief clip with the actors describing what they’d like to do with a time machine.

Safety Not Guaranteed outshines its intriguing premise because the actors sell the material. Plaza avoids make Darius a sad case and brings warm humanity to the character. When she grows more connected with Kenneth, we’re right there with her despite reservations about his sanity. Duplass has become a master at playing a charming yet slightly unhinged guy, which is perfect for this part.

I’ve yet to even mention the government spooks that follow him and seriously believe he may be a spy. While their claims don’t seem likely, they add some color to the story. It’s a charming gem that deserves to build a much larger audience after its home release.

RATING 8 / 10