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Safety Not Guaranteed Review

By Lora Grady

Partners in Time


"Safety Not Guaranteed" is a funny little movie.  It's not really a comedy, though there are certainly some laughs to be had; it would be tough not to find humor in a story about a guy who takes out an ad seeking a partner for time travel, and the three reporters who track him down to find out what's really going on. What's funny is how the movie starts out seeming like one thing and as you get comfortable with it you realize it's something else – which more or less mirrors the story it's trying to tell. Form following function: quite a neat trick.

Disconnected twenty-something Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is hoping to sort out her life while interning at a Seattle-based magazine under the direction of an overbearing editor (Mary Lynn Rajskub).  Her daily work includes such indignities as schlepping coffee and restocking toilet paper, so when an interesting story comes up at a pitch meeting, she eagerly signs on as a researcher.  Soon she's heading out of town with fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni), backstopping obnoxious writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) in an effort to research the aforementioned outlandish classified ad.  Who placed the ad? Is it serious?  What kind of a person would do such a thing?

The trail leads to an offseason beachside town, and to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who lives in a ramshackle old house, works at a discount store, and apparently needs a partner for... yes, time travel. The reporters hunker down in a tourist motel, and Darius connects with Kenneth by posing as a potential companion.  Soon Kenneth is warily sharing the secrets of his mission to return to 2001, and putting Darius through combat training.  The training montages are surprisingly sweet, and reminiscent of similar moments in Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" – charming shorthand for two lonely souls building an unexpected connection.  Meanwhile, Jeff is off on a mission of his own, tracking down an old girlfriend from one of his teenage summers at the beach – it turns out that he has ulterior motives for working on the time travel piece.  How he connects with her and what it means to him create a lovely complement to the main storyline.

The story elements relating to how the time travel is to be accomplished are artfully entwined with the whys – so it is just as fascinating to see Kenneth and Darius open up to each other and reveal the pain that keeps each respectively anchored to the past as it is to watch them sneak into a lab in the middle of the night to steal scientific equipment.  There is real joy in watching these characters bond with one another, and a hope that we're seeing two people learn to speak one another's language rather than observing the creation of an unwieldy folie a deux.  As a result, when one of Kenneth's revelations is seemingly debunked as a lie, the viewer shares Darius's sense of betrayal and the realization of what's at stake when two people connect and try to find a way to look at the world together.

"Safety Not Guaranteed" feels at the outset like a quirky indie comedy, all awkward dialogue, handheld camera shots, and characters out of step with the world, but it blooms into a beautifully realized meditation on the nature of human connections and the aching desire to revisit one's past.  At the same time it's an entertaining adventure story, and one that happily plays fair with the viewer regarding the time travel angle.  The performances are uniformly good, and it is particularly worth noting Jake Johnson's work here; he does an admirable job of taking his character through a wide arc from posturing playboy to bewildered romantic, offering a multi-faceted performance and truly earning the moment when he tells naïve intern Arnau to go out and live his life – right now -- because he'll never be that young again and he'll never be able to get the past back.

When filmmakers deal with time travel there are risks involved – plot holes, wonky science, suspension of disbelief –but "Safety Not Guaranteed" takes on those risks and succeeds, primarily by sidestepping the need to explain mechanics, and focusing instead on emotions.  The result is a thoroughly entertaining film that will reward the viewer with payoffs on a variety of levels – and that is guaranteed.

What did you think?

Movie title Safety Not Guaranteed
Release year 2012
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary A funny little movie - about a guy who seeks a partner for time travel - that sidesteps the typical trappings of a quirky indie.
View all articles by Lora Grady
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