Charming and funny, this pseudo time-travel dramedy is a delightful and heartfelt retro throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking.
A few years ago, an advertisement was placed anonymously in the classified section of newspaper The Copenhagen Post, a weekly newspaper providing Danish news in English. The text became the stuff of Internet legend: “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”. Director Colin Trevorrow has taken this small paragraph and crafted it into a fictional narrative that defies the boundaries of time and space.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) has found herself in something of a funk years after the premature death of her mother. Working as an abused intern at a newspaper, she is looking for anything to bring meaning to her life. When journalist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) pitches the idea of chasing up the owner of the time travel classified ad, she quickly volunteers. Heading off to a small coastal town with Mark and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni), they quickly discover the identity of the potential temporal tourist. A local loner, Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is intense and potentially unhinged, but his openness and earnestness draws Darius in to his world. His reasons for wanting to go back are “classified”, but he slowly begins to trust Darius. Meanwhile, Mark’s intentions aren’t entirely editorial, using the opportunity to try and hook up with the “one that got away” from his youth.
Director Trevorrow, together with writer Derek Connolly, could have very easily mocked the character of Kenneth, rallying the audience around a more cynical style of comedy. Yet, like Lars and the Real Girl before it, the real charm of Safety Not Guaranteed is in its own sincerity. The question of whether Kenneth is for real is a mini-mystery right up until the very end, but there is very little questioning his own belief in the time travel project. Whether it is the product of madness or deep personal tragedy and loss, the audience is just as readily drawn into this complex world. In this sense, Trevorrow’s film draws its closest parallels with the fantasy films of the 1980s, especially Steven Spielberg’s Amblin productions. Unlike J.J. Abrams’ recent retro-awesome in Super 8, there are no children or aliens wrapped up in an adventure. There may or may not be a government conspiracy, but the fundamental parallel is in wanting to believe in the high concept against all rational evidence to the contrary. This is the real achievement of Safety Not Guaranteed, and there will be a few moments where you may not be able to restrain an audible cheer or joy or jeer of sadness.
Trevorrow’s cast is largely peppered with a collection of actors best known for their work on the small screen. Duplass is magnificent as Kenneth, equal parts socially awkward and potentially creepy. He presents himself as the caricature at first, bailing up coworkers and customers at his retail job with stories of quantum mechanics. As Darius gets to know him, Duplass reveals a complex creation that sits underneath the obvious. Plaza doesn’t deviate significantly from her deadpan Parks and Recreation performances, here working it to get advantage to perhaps offset any audience incredulity at the core premise. Contrasting their buddy relationship is that of Mark and old flame Liz (Jenica Bergere), cleverly weaving a parallel narrative that demonstrates that sometimes you can’t go back. Newcomer Soni is a delight, and hopefully to be seen in more productions. Safety Not Guaranteed is one of the most charming films of the year, and destined to be a cult classic. Safety may not be assured, but big sloppy grins are guaranteed. Weapons are optional.
Safety Not Guaranteed debuted at Sundance in January 2012, and Sundance London in April 2012. It does not currently have an Australian release date.