If there was a classified ad that read, “WANTED: Small yet superb film as alternative to big summer blockbusters. Must exceed expectations and bring joy to the viewer,” Safety Not Guaranteed is the film to answer the calling. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and Jake Johnson and helmed by first-time director Colin Treverrow, the offbeat charmer is that rare indie gem you find once in a blue Sundance. On the surface it’s quirky, geeky and maybe even a little sci-fi. But at its center, it’s a love story – and a pretty unique and unexpected one at that.
It’s essentially based on a real-life classified ad. Not just any classified ad, but one that would be (and in fact, was) part of a Jay Leno “Headlines” sketch. It reads: “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. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” The bizarre ad catches the eye of a Seattle magazine reporter named Jeff (Johnson), who enlists the help of two interns, Darius (Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) to help track down the weirdo who posted it and find out his story.
Once the trio reaches the seaside community of Ocean View, they (well Darius and Arnau, mostly) work to track down their mysterious subject. After some brief detective work, they find Kenneth (Duplass), the likable eccentric responsible for the ad. As Darius, a smart girl with a painful past, pretends she’s a willing partner to his time traveling plans, she begins to learn that Kenneth is not only serious, but he very well may be legit. She also begins to relate to him, and it’s not long before she’s no longer just pretending to be a willing partner.
The more these two open up to each other, the better the movie gets. Darius doesn’t judge Kenneth and she is both disarmed and enamored by his unwavering belief in his mission. He feels he can trust her and truly be himself. In one fantastic scene, he sings her a song he wrote by the light of a campfire. Both characters show their vulnerabilities and Plaza nails the scene with just the right mix of emotions flickering across her face. While Darius and Kenneth get closer, so do Jeff and Arnau – in a way. Jeff tries to track down an old girlfriend and when things don’t go as planned, he vows to help Arnau enjoy his youth while he still can. Their impromptu night at an amusement park is a montage of debauched abandon and self-pity (on Jeff’s part), but its the poignant advice Jeff gives Arnau at the end of it all that really hits home.
As absurd as it sounds, the film doesn’t skimp on the time traveling aspect. If you
find that hard to get past, consider this: time travel = regrets. Each main character’s got ‘em. Each would love to go back and change things. Wouldn’t we all? In one way or another, the characters must learn to move forward.
If you’ve yet to be acquainted, allow Safety Not Guaranteed to introduce you to Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and Jake Johnson. Get to know them. Because to know them is to love them. Johnson and Plaza are already notable TV players – he’s the directionless Nick Miller on New Girl and she’s the snarky April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation. And Duplass is, well he’s everywhere. Even if you don’t realize it. He writes, produces (along with his brother Jay Duplass), directs and acts – and has done one or more of those things in such films as Jeff Who Lives at Home, Cyrus and the upcoming Your Sister’s Sister.
Director Treverrow puts everyone’s talents to good use here. Plaza retains her deadpan sense of humor, which she uses so well on Parks and Recreation, but as Darius she’s forced to delve deeper into the dramatic side of things. What results is a star-making performance. She succeeds in making Darius alternately tough, soft, insecure, hurt, and hopeful. As an actor, Johnson comfortably falls somewhere between funnyman and everyman. In the character of Jeff, he gets to explore a more selfish, arrogant side and you can tell he’s relishing every minute of it. And Duplass takes a character that could have been a one-dimensional joke and transforms him into a real human being. A tricky task, to be sure.
The notion of time travel may be far-fetched, but the lessons Safety Not Guaranteed subtly imparts are nothing but reality-based. Being yourself is scary. Opening up to someone is scary. Loving is scary. Indeed safety is not guaranteed. But if you have someone to share the journey with, as the movie shows, you just might find all that scary stuff can be pretty magical too.
Three magazine employees head out on an assignment to interview a guy who placed a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel.