Colin Trevorrow’s indie dramedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a heartfelt and enjoyable movie, when it’s just focusing on time travel. Given its small budget, the picture doesn’t delve heavily into science or technology, which is understandable. Instead it uses emotional suspense to tell two stories about love and regret. The problem is that only one of them is worth caring about.
At the opening of the movie, we’re introduced to the first and more meaningful tale: the experiences of Darius (Aubrey Plaza). Our main character is rather annoying in the beginning, because she represents the nerdy girl stereotype. With her opening narration, Darius lets you know that she’s a quirky girl who is awkward in social situations. Her clumsy behavior extends into her daily life, as evidenced by a cringe-worthy scene where her hair falls into a toilet. As the film goes on though, she settles in to become a more grounded and relatable character.
Darius interns at a Seattle magazine hurting for ideas. So the wisecracking reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) suggests they research a classified ad, which is seeking a time travel companion. Jeff thinks it will be hilarious to track down the crackpot responsible for it and exploit the guy for laughs. He insists that he’ll need assistance, so he enlists Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni), who he crudely dubs “the lesbian” and “the Indian.” The three of them journey together to a town outside the city where they start their investigation.
After they arrive however, the second obnoxious story is established. Darius and Arnau discover that Jeff has used the project as a ruse to track down an old flame. He plans on having his interns do all the work while he’s out trying to score. This forces Darius to befriend the ad’s mysterious poster Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in order to learn more about his time travel plans. Although she is initially unsure of Kenneth’s motives and his honesty, Darius gradually starts to trust him as he comes out of his shell. Meanwhile, Jeff’s life becomes complicated once he realizes his feelings for his ex are more serious than he thought.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” tries to be a typical indie comedy at its start. The movie is just crass seemingly for the sake of being so, especially during the parts at the magazine’s headquarters. Thankfully it abandons this humor as the film progresses, although Jake Johnson’s character Jeff continues to be a source of a-hole behavior and comments throughout. Even mentoring the virginal Arnau on wooing ladies can’t redeem Jeff. His tale is completely unsympathetic and distracting from the more interesting storyline.
The real emotional payoff and suspense in the film come from the time travel element and the relationship that develops between Darius and Kenneth. We learn that they both hope to use time travel as a means to correct regrets involving their loved ones. In the process we’re exposed to two damaged loners, who find strength in each other. Both actors are solid in their roles; however Duplass in particular gives a complex and earnest performance as the eccentric Kenneth.
Director Colin Trevorrow does an excellent job of keeping you guessing when it comes to whether Kenneth is being truthful about his time travel abilities. He brings it right down to the wire before the big reveal. Everything comes together a bit hastily, but happily the ending doesn’t disappoint.