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Safety Not Guaranteed
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Screenplay by Derek Connolly
Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Mark Duplass
How long is Safety Not Guaranteed? 94 minutes.
What is Safety Not Guaranteed rated? R for language including some sexual references.
In The Future, People Will Still Need People
Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie that creeps up on you, in a very friendly and appropriate way. In places, especially at the beginning, it seems a little too perfectly quirky to survive ninety minutes of running time. However, as the oddball plot draws to inevitable crisis, the characters open their minds and hearts to the impossible, and the movie transforms into something more profound.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza of Parks And Recreation) is a disaffected young woman with no particular outlook or ambition, other than staying alive on the slim promise of a thankless internship. She works in the offices of a lifestyle magazine in Seattle, but lacks the drive to land a paying job. To be fair, she has legitimate reasons for being depressed, though we do not find out why until later. Everything changes, as they say, during a brainstorming session for new articles. Wise-ass writer Jeff (Jake Johnson of New Girl) recruits Darius and geeky fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to accompany him to the coastal burg of Ocean View, where someone has published the following classified advertisement in the local paper:
“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.”
In the real world, these lines started life as a spoof ad in an actual magazine. They subsequently became an internet fad, which you have more than likely seen floating around somewhere online. Taking its title directly from the blurb, Safety Not Guaranteed imagines that somebody meant it to be serious, and that several other someones decided to find out what it was all about.
Jeff’s stated mission is to investigate the writer of this ad, either to expose a prankster or to profile an authentic wacko. In reality, he has planned the trip as a thin excuse to vacation down memory lane on the company’s dollar. Meanwhile, the interns do a crack job of tracking down the mysterious time traveler. He is a local supermarket employee named Kenneth (co-executive producer Mark Duplass), and he seems genuinely convinced that his mission is real and on track. Darius infiltrates his operation with surprising ease. Despite her initial reluctance to be the sidekick of a man who may be genuinely nuts, she and Kenneth connect instantly, for reasons that neither of them necessarily understands. He has convinced himself that just about everyone in the world is either laughing at him or spying on him, but something about her merits his trust.
For the first half hour, this movie plays like a very understated sequel to Juno, in which the petite wisecracker has grown up, moved to the city, and opened a detective agency. This feeling passes, but never completely. To be clear, this movie is better than Juno by virtue of being a lot more sincere. There are also strains of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Kenneth is clearly muddled in a lot of ways, but he can talk at length, with confidence and conviction, on crackpot questions of physics and temporal adventuring. He has the unconventional good looks of a rugged young Robert Z’Dar. If he were more devious and convincingly brilliant, he could probably be an excellent cult leader. However, what he really has on his side is childlike exuberance. Granted, the exuberance comes with fits of paranoia, but Kenneth seems too focused for unpredictable violence. Even when practicing close-quarters combat or pistol skills in the woods, he never shows concrete signs of a dangerous survivalist mentality. Darius takes his earnest training regimen in stride first with quiet amusement, then with a kind of admiration for his fighting spirit. She can tell early on that he is wounded, and trying to protect the part of him that never healed, but as they bond over the preparations for their mission, a gradual belief in the magic begins to overtake her. Kenneth is thoroughly weird, but weirdness is one of his most disarming qualities. He could never simply tell a girl how pretty he thinks she is, so instead he tells Darius that he likes her intensity. She blushes a little when she admits she likes his intensity, too.
Meanwhile, Jeff is staging a second chance with an old flame who lives in town, and simultaneously trying to get the uptight Arnau to unwind and grasp life by its reckless opportunities. These story threads are not essential to the main plot, and serve mainly as incidental vignettes to fill out the days with extra chuckles. On the other hand, they are sufficiently charming that they do not damage or impede the progress of Darius and Kenneth’s story. What all the characters have in common is that in the pursuit of Kenneth’s mystery, they each come to re-examine some of their most basic assumptions about life. As more and more factors point to Kenneth’s mission being more than a mere delusion, it starts to seem possible that the world can change for the better after all. This does not turn out as saccharine as it sounds. Safety Not Guaranteed may be narratively loose, mainly from stretching a small idea to feature length, but it has ample weight to sell its ideas convincingly and poignantly.
The characters from Seattle begin their journey as cynics, but soon find themselves face to face with something they were not expecting and certainly have not seen before. That tends to disarm even the most stalwart skeptic in a big hurry. There is at least one complete emotional journey in Safety Not Guaranteed, which should safeguard the admittedly breezy narrative against inordinate criticism. The acting is excellent all around, and at well-matched levels of energy. The photography and visual style are very pleasing to the eye, and the soundtrack is hip without becoming insufferably self-aware.
As for the movie’s big question… it clearly hinges on a simple “yes” or “no.” Is Kenneth crazy, or will the time machine work? The script manages not to end up written into a corner, and thus forced to commit, until the very last moment. The movie’s conclusion might seem too neatly packaged for some, but it also seems the most emotionally satisfying of all possible choices.