Darius, a young fresh faced intern at a large upscale Seattle magazine, along with her fellow intern, a college student and very serious young Indian teenage named Arnau, volunteers to go help Jeff, a senior writer at their publication, find the man who submitted the above classified ad in order to do a humorous and altogether sardonic and sarcastic piece for their next issue. Jeff, who could care less about the story or the crazy time travel guy except that he is mildly amused by it all only agrees to participate because he learns they will be traveling to his old hometown, and he wishes to look up an old flame there that he used to have a major crush on physically. So with that the mission to find the man who wrote the crazy ad falls to young Darius, who, along with the audience, has no idea what she’s about to get herself into. That’s the premise for ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’, the 2012 picture directed by Colin Trevorrow, which is a much better movie than I could have ever anticipated given the described set up.
On paper this movie reads like it could have been one of countless thousands of lame brained comedies that take one (sometimes) unique premise or idea and then proceed to beat it death with formulaic repetition and rigidity. But instead what happens is that the writers and actors here went beyond the crazy surroundings of the story, and indeed used said story to delve deeper into the characters here, and gave us a chance to spend some time getting to know them in a truly meaningful way, instead of just cruelly mocking them, which would have been the easier, and less challenging choice to make, as the magazine writers in the story originally intended to do to the classified ad’s author, Kenneth, played with remarkable humanity here by Mark Duplass. I perhaps should not be so surprised here that this movie was so good as the people who made this movie are the same ones who put together the equally idiosyncratic, touching, and hilarious ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ a few years back.
When we first meet Darius, played by Aubrey Plaza who gives a great odd, sarcastic, but very energetic and touching performance here, she is in the middle of an interview at a local Starbucks (or fictional stand in for Starbucks I should say) where, while she admittedly needs the extra money the job would provide, as being an intern is definitely not keeping her above water financially, she steadfastly refuses to show the fake enthusiasm required to be a part of the corporate workforce. She is typically young and independent, and Plaza brings great believability, and vulnerability to the role, along with the expected sarcasm, and, of course, natural cuteness that she comes already packaged with. Darius is very much one of those disconnected ‘fish out of water’ kinds of people who exist mostly on an internal wavelength that few can pick up on.
The character of Kenneth is a great unexpected delight here. He lives out in the woods in a ramshackle house where he is used to running people off who frequently come out of the word work to poke fun and have a laugh at him and his unusual pass time of attempting to build a machine to travel time in. He also manages to hold a full time job at a local grocery market, where Darius originally meets him at during her investigation. Together they share a great quirky chemistry, as they speak of the dangers of time travel, and the government agents whom Kenneth believes to be after him. This film very smartly plays a lot of stuff very close to the vest such as whether time travel is possible, or if Kenneth is crazy and paranoid, or should I say, just how crazy and paranoid is he in the end. As said, he has few friends and lives in the woods alone and spends most of his time talking to people who could obviously care less about quantum mechanics and other advanced subjects that interest only him. He is also desperate to find someone who will seriously talk to and listen to him, which makes him an easy target initially for Darius.
Nobody on this trip has quite the experience they expected though. Jeff does meet up with his old high school crush Liz, but she is no longer the curvy dreamboat she was in high school. She has gained in both years and in pounds, but Jeff finds they still have a connection as people, and after a quick affair he falls in love with her and asks her to return to Seattle with him, which she smartly refuses, sensing this is just another fling for him. This side plot, while unnecessary was still acted out well and gave something for the character of Jeff to do while Darius is off doing his actual job of researching the article, and falling in love herself, with Kenneth. Arnau, is never really used as anything but comic relief (he does get laid though) and as someone for the two other leads to direct their own personal monologues at.
As Darius and Kenneth get deeper into their relationship, they find an unexpected soulful kinship. The subject of time travel is used for them to have touching campfire scenes (complete with Kenneth displaying his talents on the Zither) where they discuss what they would wish to change if they actually had the ability to go back and alter events from the past. We find out things about both characters, such as that Kenneth wishes to go back to 2001 and save his old girlfriend from being killed in a car crash, and that Darius would wish to go back and save her mother. Now whether or not time travel actually takes place or is even possible is not something I will spoil here. The movie handles that subject very wisely, not letting it overtake the story, but keeping it in its rightful supporting spot. In the end though with the article’s deadline approaching and Darius no longer feeling so good (but rather guilty) about the nature of the project in general, and with Jeff having had his priorities altered as well with his failed fling with Liz, everyone comes out of this with an expanded horizon, and with vastly different priorities than they came into this with.
There’s a magic in this movie that goes beyond the science fiction subject matter, chiefly in the performances by Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass. Hopefully both of these two wonderful actors will have many great roles in the future, as they have proven here they can more than hold their own in a starring role. They had great unforced chemistry in a love story that I can’t imagine having worked out as well with any other two people having been in their roles.
Truly, the real joy in this film is in watching these actors interact with each other in what ought to be very over the top scenes, but instead, turn out to be wonderfully grounded and restrained exchanges. This is a smart movie, written by smart people. It’s a low budget independent movie too, which may be a good thing, as I found I really didn’t want any of the usual big movie shenanigans going on here to distract me from this quaint quirky little story being told. Safety Not Guaranteed works on the level of being a pretty good coming of age flick, a comedy, and a romance (but definitely not a ‘romantic comedy’ shudder) and finally as a very ingeniously imagined and eccentric fairy tale for grown ups and oddballs of all ages. I give it a full hearty recommendation if you’re looking for something with a little, but not too much, depth in your movie watching experience on some weekend night. I don’t about safety, as this movie makes many brave and ‘unsafe’ artistic decisions, but the overall cinematic quality here is definitely, guaranteed, by me anyway. Thanks for reading.