Safety Not Guaranteed (United States, 2012)

June 12, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Safety Not Guaranteed Poster

The classified ad reads: "WANTED: Someone 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. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before. "

To be clear, Safety Not Guaranteed is not a science fiction movie. This is not about jumping into a time machine and popping into the future or the past. Viewers interested in that can watch Doctor Who. Instead, this is an indie romantic comedy with a kernel of mystery at its core. The questions viewers will ask, and which first time feature director Colin Trevorrow ultimately answers, is whether the time machine is real and whether the guy placing the ad is a nutcase or a visionary. (Some might argue that the revelation is ambiguous, but it seems pretty clear-cut to me.) The central story, however, is a time-honored staple of low-budget motion pictures: two of society's cast-offs finding one another.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a Seattle newspaper. Her job entails demeaning gruntwork for which she gets paid nothing. When she attempts to get a waitressing job at a coffee shop, she is informed that her sullen disposition makes her a "bad hire." Her life changes when she and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), are selected by a reporter, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), to track down the writer of the classified ad for an article. Jeff has an ulterior motive -he wants to hook up with an old high school flame who he recently befriended on Facebook. That leaves Darius to make contact with Kenneth (Mark Duplass) and convince him that she's the perfect time-traveling companion. The more she gets to know him, the more she begins to believe that he's more than a delusional recluse. And the government agents he believes are watching him might be real.

For the most part, Safety Not Guaranteed is a pleasant viewing experience, but there is a flaw. While Darius is bonding with Kenneth, Jeff is reconnecting with his past. This subplot goes nowhere. It eats up a surprising amount of screen time but there's no payoff. As characters go, Jeff isn't interesting or well-developed and his arc gets amputated before reaching any kind of conclusion. Arnau's sole reason for existence is for comedic purposes - he's the stereotype nerd who has never kissed a girl and is afraid to approach one. Jeff, acting as his mentor, rectifies this.

Aubrey Plaza easily outshines her co-stars. The 28-year old actress, although not a household name, has an extensive resume and is perhaps best known for her work in the TV series Parks and Recreation. Her deadpan comedic timing accounts for many of Safety Not Guaranteed's most satisfying chuckles. There's not a lot of chemistry between her and the low-key Mark Duplass - just enough to keep us invested in the offbeat romance. In terms of "star power," this movie offers little beyond small roles for Mary Lynn Rajskub and Kristen Bell.

In a sense, Safety Not Guaranteed could claim to be "based on a true story." The ad that jump-starts the movie is close to something that appeared in real newspaper and was featured on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show. The rest of the story is fictional, but as concepts go, this is a good one and the filmmakers take it in a different direction than one might expect. (It's also more interesting than the story behind the real ad, which was just a guy filling up space in a classified section.)

"Charming" and "sweet" are two words that can be applied to this movie, which is considerably gentler than the R-rating might imply. (If it was a major studio offering, it would likely end up with a PG-13 rating, perhaps without any cuts.) The film is enjoyable in large part because it's not like anything else out there. It doesn't seek to compete with the big-budget studio releases but offers something that's worth the same price of admission. Plaza's winning performance is a strong selling point and most viewers will become engrossed in the central mystery to a surprising degree. Trevorrow plays his cards close to his vest and, before the "reveal," there are reasons aplenty to believe and disbelieve Kenneth's claim to be a time traveler. But Safety Not Guaranteed doesn't demand that the viewer be versed in the lingo and machinations of science fiction; it's more about the simple conceit of two people connecting - something everyone can relate to.

Safety Not Guaranteed (United States, 2012)

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson, Karan Soni, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kristen Bell
Screenplay: Derek Connolly
Cinematography: Benjamin Kasulke
Music: Ryan Miller
U.S. Distributor: FilmDistrict
Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2012-06-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1