Back to the heartfelt future
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 15, 2012
“Safety Not Guaranteed” takes its title and theme from an Internet meme that made the rounds a few years ago: a purported newspaper classified ad seeking a partner in time travel. “Must bring your own weapons,” read the original ad, which turned out to have been written as a joke by an editor with too much time on his hands. “Safety not guaranteed.”
There is a real danger in the movie based on that gag, but not the kind the ad suggests. The risk of the quirky rom-com -- which revolves around the efforts of a Seattle magazine writer and two interns to profile the guy who placed the ad -- is from cuteness overload.
Fortunately, the film’s engaging and offbeat cast prevents that from happening.
Anchoring the story are Mark Duplass as Kenneth, the possibly paranoid loner who claims to have invented a time machine, and Aubrey Plaza as Darius, the intern who manages to gain Kenneth’s trust and who, over the course of the film, questions her original assumptions about his sanity. Jake M. Johnson is suitably sleazy as Darius’s boss, Jeff, a writer whose real agenda in taking the assignment has more to do with hooking up with Liz (Jenica Bergere), an old high school flame. And Karan Soni is sweet and funny as Arnau, Darius’s nerdy and desperately virginal fellow intern.
Of the four main performers, Plaza shines the brightest. Making her debut in a cinematic leading role, the “Parks and Recreation” actress starts off with what essentially is a reprise of her television role as April, the sullen, 20-something municipal employee in a small-town recreation department. But she quickly sheds that acerbic persona, bringing a surprising measure of heart and soul to a character who would be all too easy to play with the actress’s signature deadpan approach.
The moment when this transition occurs is pretty obvious. After Kenneth has let down his guard and is training Darius in firearms handling, the actress’s face almost literally lights up during a session of target practice. The sudden discovery that she’s capable of enthusiasm seems as startling to her as it is to us. It’s contagious as heck, too.
Plaza also brings unexpected depth to Darius. Although wryly comedic, the film is ultimately less about the mechanics of sci-fi time travel than about, as Kenneth describes his mission, regret, mistakes and love. He and Darius travel back in time to fix old errors. It’s a theme that’s echoed in Jeff’s attempt to reunite with Liz. What is it but another form of time travel, albeit one that doesn’t require a machine?
In fact, the central story, which focuses on the question of whether Kenneth is delusional or not, is the least interesting thing about the movie. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is most vibrant and vital at its edges, in the way that the characters interact with each other while waiting for something to happen.
As happens with many time-travel films, this one ultimately paints itself into a bit of a narrative corner. Despite a mostly solid sense of storytelling by director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly, the way that “Safety Not Guaranteed” escapes from that impasse -- is Kenneth crazy, or is it the world around him that’s nuts? -- feels like a cop out. What’s surprising is that, with Plaza’s emotional investment in Darius, Kenneth’s fate hardly seems to matter.
Contains obscenity and sexual references.