Safety Not Guaranteed begins with a wanted ad that seems pulled directly from The Tonight Show.
The writer of the classified is seeking someone with whom to travel back in time. The author confirms that this is no joke, that you need only supply your own weapons, and underscores the fact that it is not certain whether you will emerge from the ordeal unscathed.
This sounds like the opening to a farce perhaps involving a round-table of Saturday Night Live cast members. Much to our surprise, what we get is a sweet comedy with very serious undertones indeed.
The classified ad comes at a staff meeting for Seattle Magazine. A writer named Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) is assigned to track down the author for a potential story.
He is given the assistance of interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni). Darius is a 20-something post-graduate wanderer who is also something of a loner. Arnau is a nerd who functions really more as a cliché here.
We are not surprised when the virginal character reaches his epochal moment. Jeff seems like a sleaze that is really taking the assignment to hook up with a former flame.
Of course, all of these characters seem familiar but the real surprise is in watching them turn from archetypes to human beings so subtly, that you almost won’t miss the transformation as it unfolds right before your eyes.
Anyway, the trio heads to Ocean View to track down the person responsible for the classified.
Rather quickly, they meet a mid-30s grocery clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who seems about as down to earth as they would expect from a would-be time traveler. He reports elaborate stories of government spies, top secret missions, and theoretical science that seem to stem from a guy who has far too much time and reading material on his hands.
Although many real intelligent people have often theorized about time travel, the paradoxes that would ultimately ensue leave the whole idea within the realm of fantasy. Safety Not Guaranteed is not afraid to sidestep the normal rules of time travel and instead treat the subject matter somewhat seriously.
The team of reporters uses Darius as bait to lure Kenneth into their journalistic clutches. She digs him for information, and Kenneth becomes alarmingly vulnerable with her.
Here the film takes a decisive turn towards drama, and the result gives young stars Plaza and Duplass a handful of wonderfully spontaneous scenes. The two characters let their respective guards down and share in their own troubled pasts. Not surprisingly, Darius begins to see Kenneth as a person of interest, not just as an assignment, and her mission threatens to be compromised.
It would be wrong to call Safety Not Guaranteed a film about time travel, even though it is the idea that pushes the whole narrative forward. Every time traveler needs personal reasons for doing so, and it is the means that give SNG its pathos. While Plaza and Duplass discuss plans for literal space-time continuum jumping, screenwriter Derek Connolly gives the character of Jeff a more metaphorical version of the same thing.
Here is a film that is so small, we forget that it is taking place on a summer silver screen. Oh, how the moments of ingenuity are there, but for some reason this film was never able to fully sweep me away.
Perhaps its scope is too small to feel emotionally invested. In the end, the way that Trevorrow asks us to believe not so comforting facts about his love interest’s mental health, and then quickly sweep that knowledge under the rug, left me a little unsatisfied with its all too positive surprise ending.
Whatever the case, Trevorrow proves his film has at least some magic in this fact. It has been a while since I have seen a film that presented itself as so little, while leaving so much to talk about afterwards.
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