Though it’s often portrayed as something fun and adventurous, I suspect that the true nature of time travel, at least for the basement quacks and pseudoscientists working on such projects. Even Marty McFly, patron saint of time travel, booked it to 1955 under tragic circumstances. That’s why it’s hardly surprising to learn that the people who respond to personal ads like the one that inspires Safety Not Guaranteed are inmates and survivors, those looking to rectify a mistake or save someone from dying. This strikes me as about right. Sure, there are plenty of people who’d go back in time just to do it, but the right person for the job has the right reasons for going.
At least one character in Safety Not Guaranteed has a good reason for going back in time, and though the film begins with the premise that a journalist and his interns are descending from the big city to make fun of some small town yokel and his weird personal ad, it quickly becomes clear that this is a film about trust and regret. In a romantic comedy—another thing Safety Not Guaranteed covertly happens to be—the very word “trust” is a dubious thing. It’s often what breaks up couples who were only together as a requirement of the script, and is often what the couple find in one another minutes before they’re at the alter. Colin Trevorrow’s debut feature is not so vacuous as the standard rom-com. Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) do not meet cute, as many movie couples do. Darius is one of the interns sent to expose Kenneth as a nutjob, her role as contact a calculated move based largely on the relationship between nerds and aloof women. The gambit pays off, as Kenneth is as desirous of women as he is awkward around them.
Their relationship, conveniently enough, is built around a series of trust-building exercises, Kenneth vetting Darius for the position of fellow traveler. The exercises are mostly ridiculous, serving to paint Kenneth as slightly paranoid, which he is. As for regret, both he and Darius have their fair share. Both claim that their mission, once they go back in time, is to stop a loved one from dying. For Kenneth, it’s a girlfriend whose passing has clearly left him in a state of arrested development. For Darius, it’s her mother. It isn’t long before Darius drops the pretense of snooping on Kenneth for the sake of the article. She believes in what he’s selling, to the point that she’s his accomplice in the robbery of a scientific research facility. When a pair of trenchcoat-wearing strangers start snooping around, it adds another layer of truth to Kenneth’s time traveling bravado.
There are other outside forces conspiring against the pair. Jeff (Jake Johnson), Darius’ boss, is an impatient man who only took the assignment so he can rectify what he sees as the biggest mistake of his life: Not settling (and settling down) with a woman (Jenica Bergere) who lives in the same city as Kenneth. While Darius and Kenneth grow closer through a series of goofy training exercises and earnest self-reveals, Jeff quickly blows things with Liz. Rather than come to terms with the fact that he’s not the person he was in high school (and that Liz isn’t, either), Jeff gets hammered, conspires to get his other intern (Karan Soni) laid, and decides to wrap things up on the story. It doesn’t take much investigating to find that Kenneth hasn’t been exactly honest with Darius, and it doesn’t take much prodding from the group (or the men in trenchcoats) for Kenneth to call the whole thing off.
Not much of this has to do with time travel, which is mostly tangential to the mission of Safety Not Guaranteed. If you’re the sort that pays attention to movie posters, than you know that this movie and Little Miss Sunshine share producers. Like that movie, Safety Not Guaranteed‘s destination is a sweet payoff, but its the journey that matters most. Kenneth certainly has plans for a time machine and has clearly been stealing and plotting his way towards having the parts necessary to build it, but the film holds its cards close to the chest, revealing little as to Kenneth’s being a genius or a crank. What matters most is that Darius comes to believe him, despite his clumsy smokescreens, and that, regardless of the plausibility of time travel, there’s something real between them, that their eventually broken trust isn’t something manufactured and undone by coincidence, but by reality.
Safety Not Guaranteed, like Little Miss Sunshine, is uneven at times, substituting a fair amount of quirk for character development outside of Plaza and Duplass’ roles, and the script’s slightness is noticeable during the too-long intervals when Darius and Kenneth are not the film’s focal point. But in walking the fine line between schmaltz and sincerity that most indie comedies fall from in their opening act, Safety Not Guaranteed is remarkably successful. It anchors itself with Plaza and Duplass, and is convinced that it needs no further frills than its premise. In traversing a wasteland of romantic comedies studded with pot-smoking hangers-on, unnecessarily abrasive leads, and sitcom plots, for a film to believe so strongly in its protagonists and their destination is almost stupidly brave. Thankfully, its belief is rewarding.
Safety Not Guaranteed. Directed by Colin Trevorrow. With Aubrey Plaza (Darius), Mark Duplass (Kenneth), Jake Johnson (Jeff), Karan Soni (Arnau), Jenica Bergere (Liz), and Kristen Bell (Belinda). Released June 8, 2012, by FilmDistrict.