The 2012 indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed takes a famous ad from someone looking for a companion on a time-travel expedition – claiming he’s “only” done it once before – and builds it into a cute, clever story about quirky characters in search of something more than what they’ve gotten out of life, all for different yet interconnected reasons. At about 80 minutes of actual content, it’s briskly paced with smart and witty dialogue, and sets up so well that the ultimate question of whether the time travelers actually travel in time becomes irrelevant. Call it a movie rule: If the story is crafted properly, and the characters are well developed, then the film’s ending doesn’t matter.
(UPDATE: It’s the iTunes $0.99 Movie of the Week as an HD rental. So you really have no excuse.)
Safety stars Aubrey Plaza, better known as April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, as Darius, a recent college graduate in an unglamorous, unpaid internship for an alternative weekly paper in Seattle. Bored with basically everything life has thrown her and in a persistent depression since her mom died eight years earlier, Darius volunteers to go with the cocky staff writer Jeff to investigate the man behind the time-travel ad (which, in reality, appeared in Backwoods Home magazine in 1997 as a joke by a staff member), with Jeff figuring he’ll get a portrait of a harmless crazy person … except that Jeff really just wants to go hook up with an old girlfriend, with Darius and fellow intern Arnau, the film’s one stock character, doing all of the work.
The man who placed the ad, Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass, turns out to be completely earnest about the endeavor, definitely harmless, mostly a goofball, but also quite real – at home with his weirdness, with one exception I won’t spoil, totally focussed on this time-travel project so he can go back and prevent one thing from happening. He’s living in the present so that he can relive the past, with an intensity that resonates with the aimless Darius, who poses as a potential partner for Kenneth, going through “training” with him while Jeff hooks up with his ex and Arnau … does nothing all day, apparently, because they never finished writing his character.
Duplass’ character should be the centerpiece as the amiable dork whose passion for his project just sucks you into the story, but Plaza owns every scene she’s in, especially the ones she shares with Duplass, where she plays a character within a character, trying to manipulate Kenneth just to the point where he’ll accept her as a potential partner, but never with the contempt Jeff shows in his own abortive attempts to get the gig. Plaza’s character on Parks has morphed from the satiricial I-hate-everything girl to a more nuanced, more conflicted I-hate-that-I-like-things woman (and wife!) who appears to be hiding her inner Darius – a woman looking to just enjoy the present instead of feeling like the time is out of joint. April pretends she’s not sweet; Darius is sweet (but not saccharine) and wants someone, the right someone, to notice it. Kenneth is a little slow on the uptake there, since he is pretty locked in to the whole time-travel thing, but their relationship feels far more organic for how slowly it develops.
Duplass delivers a strong showing as Kenneth, playing the goofball as a serious goofball, not a wacko or a mentally ill or unstable person, just someone who’s looking backwards because what he sees forwards doesn’t give him much hope. Jake Johnson is appropriately annoying as the man-child Jeff, himself still unable to let go of a failed, long-dead relationship, yet aware enough of it that he can counsel Darius and especially Arnau to enjoy their early-20s primes. Both men are having midlife crises that don’t involve buying Porsches (which they can’t afford) or leaving wives (which they don’t have), instead doing, well, other somewhat stupid things, or doing smart things and screwing them up because they haven’t grown up enough yet. Arnau’s subplot is the one thread that comes through as an afterthought, and his best part in the film is his reaction in the final scene.
The conclusion is ambiguous, because Derek Connolly’s script handles the the Kenneth and Darius storyline so well that it doesn’t actually matter whether they get to travel back in time. Connolly even manages to sidestep the myriad reasons why time travel is impossible, simply having Kenneth treat it as real and moving forward from there, with its feasibility tangential to the main plot. He also granted Darius most of the film’s great lines, largely in response to Kenneth’s sincere nuttiness, with their dialogues, unusually thoughtful and long for a contemporary film, making up most of Safety Not Guaranteed‘s best moments. The movie only showed on a few hundred screens last year – I’m not even sure where it played near me, or exactly when – and made just over $4 million at the box office, which is a shame given how sweet and funny it is, without ever talking down to us (except with Arnau, a little). Perhaps it’s Aubrey Plaza’s curse to star in great vehicles that mainstream audiences just don’t watch.