It’s really hard for me to dislike a movie like Safety Not Guaranteed, in large part because it’s pleasant, funny, charming and inoffensive. It’s like wanting to pick on that one kid at school who wouldn’t harm a fly just because he’s not terribly interesting. It’s mean to take that shot but you hope that if you do, he’ll grow up to be something more and that you’ll have helped him out. While Safety Not Guaranteed can’t exactly improve at this point, it’s possible that the people behind it can.
Our lead, but not breakout star, is Aubrey Plaza, here playing Darius, a possibly depressed intern working for a local magazine. That magazine has recently been struggling to find stories, and one of the writers, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), has suggested writing about an advertisement that appeared in one of the local papers. The ad read: “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.” Jeff decides to take two interns on him for this story, Darius and a shy boy named Arnau (Karan Soni).
It turns out, however, that Jeff has an ulterior motive for leaving town to find the man responsible for this advertisement. He wants to track down one of his high school flings, thinking that his assignment is mostly a joke anyway. Eventually, Darius becomes the one to do most of the work for it, tracking down the man who posted it, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and spending as much time with him as possible, trying to convince him that she’s a worthy partner.
That’s about all that happens for the rest of the film. Darius and Kenneth do a bunch of activities together as he “tests” her, while Jeff tries to find his old high school girlfriend and see if the fire can be rekindled. There are long periods when nothing of real importance happens, in large part because Kenneth doesn’t need to do much before he can embark on his journey. He has built his machine — “I have only done this once before,” remember — and basically is just hoping to find someone willing to travel back to 2001 with him.
At this point, you’re probably wondering whether time travel exists, or if Kenneth is just really crazy. The answer is there for the taking, depending on how you want to interpret the film. Unfortunately, the number of questions that it left unanswered made this a tad more difficult than you might expect. While I do think I have an answer to “Does time travel exist?” I felt as if there were a bunch more that came up but never got enough time to be answered.
It feels like 30 minutes were missing from Safety Not Guaranteed. Whether this is due to some poor writing or editing, or because the filmmakers ran out of money, I doubt we’ll ever find out, but the movie felt too short and rushed, especially near the end. Entire subplots either went nowhere or ended up being dropped for no reason, and these led to some of the questions that I had when it ended. There’s something to be said for thinking about a film after it concludes, which is what happened here, but there’s a balance that I don’t think the film found.
Much of Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t about time travel; it’s a love story, and the best way to describe its genre is to call is an “indie rom-com.” Darius and Kenneth spend so much awkward time together that they have to maybe fall in love, as that’s what these types of films dictate. Jeff exists for the sole reason for talking about romance and relationships, as does his entire character arc.
However, many of the situations that the characters find themselves in are funny, and I did have a good time because of the film’s sense of humor. I don’t know if you go into a movie whose lead is Aubrey Plaza and expect it to be entirely without jokes, but if you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised as there are many attempts and most of them succeed. It also contains a few genuinely sweet moments that you realize only make an impact because there are deep, thoughtful characters. Crazy, perhaps, but that doesn’t totally negate their other characteristics.
The “Is Kenneth really crazy?” question is where our movie doesn’t quite click. Too much time is spent trying to get us to think one way or another that by the end, it grows tiresome. As more things get revealed, we keep turning one way or another, which takes our attention away from the film’s focus, the budding romance. Too much time was spent trying to convince us that he was both crazy and not crazy, especially when the truth, like for most of us, lies somewhere in the middle.
That doesn’t take away from Mark Duplass’ performance, which is very solid. He’s the star, and plays his character perfectly, imbuing him with a sense of genuine sympathy and also with a touch of paranoia and some sort of mental disorder. I was less impressed with Plaza, if only because she had a tendency to end seemingly every sentence with an upward inflection, which is grating after watching it for an hour and a half. Jake M. Johnson is charming and charismatic, which is all that was required of him, and look out for cameos from Jeff Garlin and Kristen Bell, which made me do a double take.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a harmless film that will pass the time just fine and remain in your mind for a good while afterward. It does the latter because it leaves a ton of unanswered questions and plot points that went nowhere. It is, however, sweet, funny, charming, and fun if you let it, and there are definitely worse things to give your time to.