Even without the magic of nostalgia, there’s a belief we can find love not by looking forward but by looking to our past. The past has the love we were guaranteed, or at least the love we thought we could have if we hadn’t made mistakes. The future only holds uncertainty and heartbreak. Colin Trevorrow‘s Safety Not Guaranteed shows its characters indulging their fantasies to turn past love into present love. Sadly, that’s about as deep as the film goes, but the film still works thanks to the charming performances, light humor, and a tinge of melancholy.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) works as an intern at a Seattle magazine, and she finds herself intrigued when reporter Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) pitches the idea to investigate a curious newspaper classified ad. The ad (taken almost verbatim from a real ad that was passed around the Internet in 2005) reads ” WANTED: Somebody 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.” Jeff, Darius, and her fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) hunt down the time traveler, grocery clerk Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass). Darius is able to ingratiate herself with Kenneth under the guise of being genuinely interested to join him in his adventure. Meanwhile, Jeff takes up with an old crush solely for personal reasons.
Darius and Jeff’s plotlines are radically different in tone, but they both lead to the same point. Darius and Kenneth live in a more fantastical world where they have to train with guns, heist equipment from laboratories, and prepare to launch the time travel machine. Without going into too much detail, both are looking for a way to reach a loved one. Jeff’s story drops all of the sci-fi and adventure to go for a straight love story about trying to rekindle a relationship. Without this thematic connection and Johnson’s charming performance, Jeff’s storyline would feel like an unwanted distraction from the more compelling time-travel plot.
But the sci-fi isn’t the point of Safety Not Guaranteed (the film never touches on when Kenneth did it “once before”). The premise is set-up to serve a sweet love story between two people who feel disconnected from the rest of the world. Plaza starts out in the sardonic mode we’ve seen from her multiple times before, but she gets to play a range of emotions as Darius’ relationship with Kenneth deepens. She also has a strong partner in Duplass. The actor pushes the character beyond quirks and balances Kenneth’s insecurities and convictions. He makes sure that while we may find Kenneth to be an oddball, he’s not a figure of mockery or derision, which is what Darius discovers as she spends more time with him.
These charming performances and fun premise keep Safety Not Guaranteed afloat, but the limited message and the failure to take it seriously leave the movie feeling slight. Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly seem to believe that there’s only so much power the story can derive from the film’s relationships and the film sprints from major revelations to a heartwarming ending without having the characters really deal with what they’ve just learned. Safety Not Guaranteed could enrich its message by having characters take some time to sit with their emotions rather than devoting more of their time to traveling through time.
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: