Film Review: Safety Not GuaranteedFrom its shoestring budget to its no-name cast to its familiar tropes, this could have been independent filmmaking at its most generic. But with its off-the-wall premise, snarky wit and heartfelt performances, it’s quite the opposite: an inspired
In its early moments, this quirkily offbeat, consistently funny love story (it’s more smile-inducing than out-loud laugh-provoking) seems like it’s going to be a throwback to those grunge-music-era indies about underemployed, Gen-X, recent college graduates trying to figure out what to do next with their lives. That’s largely because its heroine, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), is a lot like one of those girls Winona Ryder would have played 20 years ago: She’s a glum, cynical, self-deprecatingly insecure magazine intern, who seems to be dressed in black even when she isn’t. But there’s more to Darius than Winona 2.0. As played by Plaza with an understated soulfulness, she’s both the beating heart and driving energy of a film that sometimes stumbles on its way to a problematic resolution—but generally keeps us engaged, by its refreshing unpredictability. Along the way, though, it is Darius’ emotional journey that really matters. And on that score, the filmmakers deliver. We get this girl. We like this girl. We root for her. She doesn’t disappoint us.
Trying to make an impression on her tough, demanding editor-in-chief (Mary Lynn Rajskub, all too briefly creating new sparks with a clichéd role), Darius takes a break from her back-under-the-same-roof life with her widowed dad, and hits the road with seasoned lead reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni). The assignment: track down and interview the person who posted a classified ad seeking a time-traveling companion. “Must bring your own weapons,” the ad says. “Safety not guaranteed.” Is it a joke? Is the time traveler just a nut job? Or is he, just maybe, for real? Whatever the answer is, Jeff has convinced his desperate-for-ideas editor that it will be amusing to find out. It’s initially hard to guess which narrative path the film will take from there—but whichever guess you make, you’re still in for some surprises. And it doesn’t take long.
No sooner does the investigative team arrive in the somnolent seaside town of Ocean View (home of the time-traveler’s P.O. box) than Jeff puts his fact-finding on the back burner, in favor of looking up an old high-school girlfriend, with whom he hopes to recapture the glory (or at least the promise) of his youth. Meanwhile, Darius, by default, becomes the point person in the time-traveler search, first staking out the local post office, then stalking her quarry, then meeting him and gaining his trust, then landing the job of time-machine co-pilot. Each step of that process contains some cute (but not too cute) moments of tentative, almost reluctant bonding. It’s the beginning of an improbably affecting friendship, and a just plain improbable romance. But you buy it, mostly because Plaza is the one selling it—with a transformative performance that’s almost too natural to be called acting. In the end, the filmmakers test our commitment by going all out for a magically happy fadeout. But by then, they’ve built up too much goodwill to not be forgiven. They’ve given us too much enjoyment in watching these two people find and fall for each other.
Mark Duplass’ time-traveler, Kenneth, is the perfect foil for Plaza’s Darius: Paranoid, super-nerdy and hair-trigger twitchy, he’s also driven by his belief in the time machine he has built out of lasers and other key parts he has stolen from government labs. He’s got just the kind of passion and sense of purpose (however misplaced) that have been lacking in Darius’ life. Is it any wonder that she seems to come alive after she meets him? The subtlety with which Plaza allows this to happen is one of Safety Not Guaranteed’s genuine pleasures.
But it’s Darius’ reason for wanting to go back in time—to 2001, to be exact—that takes this movie to an unexpectedly touching place. The fact that her motives aren’t so different from Kenneth’s only doubles the bittersweet emotional impact. These are the little surprises that are so integral to the film’s appeal. They’re not the stuff of a crossover mainstream status—but it’s easy to imagine the word-of-mouth buzz turning this fearlessly feel-good fantasy into some kind of underground hit.