REVIEW SUMMARY: A touching romantic comedy supported by a great cast, Derek Connolly’s smart script, and Colin Trevorrow’s understated direction.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Three Seattle magazine reporters cover a story on the man who placed a classified ad calling for time travelers.
PROS: Winning performances by all involved, but especially Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass; intelligent, taut, and unpredictable script.
CONS: Directorial missteps at the movie’s opening; liminal treatment of genre content might turn off some viewers.
At first glance, Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass) looks like the stereotype of the loner losers populating most American indie fare: tall, somewhat hunched, attractive in a vague way despite a prosthetic ear that keeps slipping from the side of his head. When Kevin talks about multiverses and quantum physics with his grocery store coworker Shannon (William Hall, Jr.), he even sounds like somebody who wound up on the cutting room floor of a pretentious Little Miss Sunshine–inspired strip of celluloid crossed with a forgettable X-Files–obsessed geek making a brief appearance on The Big Bang Theory. He’s the kind of character on whom dispassionate hipsters love to bestow affectionate contempt.
But something is wrong with this picture: Kenneth possesses a complete earnestness and utter lack of irony and self-consciousness that makes his eccentricities more endearing than insufferable. Yes, body language and guarded demeanor suggest old wounds that never fully healed, and his paranoia has the potential of being very scary (as when Kenneth pulls a shotgun from the trunk of his car when he believes someone is following him), but his absence of genuine anger and innate honesty betray something those hipsters simply won’t tolerate: he’s harmless and, as hipster wannabe Darius (Aubrey Plaza) learns, actually quite sweet.
Darius, too, easily could come from an indie picture. An intern with Seattle magazine, young, fresh from college, she blows an interview at Starbucks by giving an elaborate answer to a simple question (in a funny scene that feels out of place), and wraps cynicism around her like a cold, comfortable blanket. She comes to Ocean View, Washington, with reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to run a story on Kenneth after reading the classified ad Kenneth placed in an alternative newspaper: “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. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.” Posing as somebody responding to the ad, she initially confronts him with a caricature of what she believes he must actually be like, and eventually softens as he leads her through “training.” She cannot believe he’s for real, but falls for him precisely because he is devoid of pretense.
So, in turn, is the rest of Safety Not Guaranteed. Its premise offers screenwriter Derek Connolly (whose screenplay won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival) and director Colin Trevorrow myriad alternatives stories—from archly knowing and self-conscious art flick to slob comedy—yet the movie unfolds in refreshingly unexpected ways, helped by Treverrow’s understated direction. Jeff uses the assignment as a pretext to hook up with a high school girlfriend he has never been able to forget; when he sees Liz (Jenica Bergere) again he backs away from introducing himself, though perhaps not for the stated reason. When he finally does arrive at Liz’s home for a visit, it becomes fairly obvious that his motives may not be that simple. At one point, Kenneth asks Darius why she wants to travel back in time. Her reason, when given, reveals an inner pain that steers clear of melodrama. Throughout the movie, Kenneth insists people are following him. Jeff and Arnau treat the news relayed by Darius with bemusement…until they discover that Jeff is being followed. The government agents keeping tabs on Kenneth, coincidentally, seem bemused by their assignment.
Is Kenneth delusional? He would seem to be. He watches a faceless office building that might house parts he needs for his time machine; when he enlists Darius’s help in stealing lasers, his gimcrack scheme appears rife with amateurishness. “Their security is full of holes,” he tells her. His heist (one of the movie’s funniest moments) suggests that the building isn’t the hotbed of scientific research he thinks…or that, perhaps, he’s right about their security. Other revelations point to evidence of his break with reality, but also hint at other possibilities. Genre fans who prefer more overt explanations won’t like the seemingly liminal use of time travel tropes. Even the movie’s ending, as logically and emotionally satisfying as it is, eludes the typical genre elements.
Yet focusing on Kenneth’s sanity and the realities of time travel in the narrative misses the point, in much the same way that focusing on whether or not the title character of Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary is in fact an extraterrestrial is irrelevant. Time travel, real or not, pervades every scene, in dialogue, in motivation, in action. Toward the beginning of the movie, Darius asks Arnau where he would go if he could go back in time. Arnau replies he wouldn’t; he’s happy, he says, where he is. When Jeff helps Arnau pick up a young woman, Arnau expresses his insecurity about the situation and makes a case for inaction. Jeff argues that, even if Arnau has regrets later, he will have done something. Without action, he seems to imply, time freezes into a perpetual now. Life, like time travel, has no guarantee of safety; with risk comes the possibility of pain, and, sometimes, joy. Safety Not Guaranteed also tells us, as it concludes, that it helps to have a traveling companion.