Mark Reviews Movies

Safety Not Guaranteed


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin, Kristen Bell

MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:34

Release Date: 6/8/12 (limited); 6/15/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 14, 2012

Perhaps it's a deeply rooted sense of optimism or naïveté, but when Safety Not Guaranteed introduces its inciting incident, a want ad from a man seeking a partner with whom to go back in time, I do not instantly wonder if the man who placed said ad is joking or insane. Perhaps it's the film's own hopeful worldview that instead makes us wonder, "Well, how is he going to do that?"

It is a certain type of person who would want to go back in time for reasons that exist outside the boundaries of science, discovery, or the greater good. Safety Not Guaranteed gives us two such people: Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Their reasons are entirely personal—perhaps even a bit selfish (Note that Kenneth announces he wants to travel back to 2001, a year in which the majority of people would probably want to stop one specific event given the opportunity).

Darius has never been sociable. In college, she sat in her dorm room studying, even while her roommate was busy making out with a guy a few feet away from her. Her high school years were pretty much the same; no one ever really noticed she was there. Her father (Jeff Garlin) guesses that his daughter is still virgin; after he lays out the evidence for his assumption, she doesn't argue.

It all goes back—she breaks down in an opening narration—to when her mother died. When Darius hears about the ad saying that someone has discovered a way to travel into the past during a pitch meeting at the magazine where she holds a dead-end internship, her entire body perks up in a way that lets us know her motives for wanting helping out with this story are much deeper than her career. Darius doesn't care about this job and probably never will (She really wonders if she'll ever care about anything again); the chance to see if someone really can go back in time is an unexpected benefit.

Kenneth, the man who placed the ad, is also a loner. He lives in a cabin in the woods, where he has the freedom to run training exercises in the forest (After all, one must be ready for anything when traveling to a new frontier, even if it is a place where one has technically been before). He works at a grocery store and gets into discussions about quantum mechanics with a polite co-worker. In his off hours, he toils away in a shed, where some sort of machine sits out of the view of inquiring minds, and scopes out a research facility where some vital parts are located. Kenneth is convinced there are men after him because of the work he's doing.

Darius' boss Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), the writer who should be doing all the work but is too busy stuck in his own past by trying to rekindle the flames with an old girlfriend (Jenica Bergere), assumes—just as anyone in the real world would in the same situation—that Kenneth is crazy (Jeff's story fits thematically but still feels extraneous, particularly when he attempts to help his other intern (Karan Soni) live life to the fullest by partying all night). The question of Kenneth's sanity is there, if only because characters will occasionally bring it up.

By all rationale, Kenneth should be a potential threat, and, in this regard, the performances are key to ensuring he is, at worst, a misguided dreamer instead of a raving, paranoid sociopath who, according to an old acquaintance of his, might have tried to kill someone years ago (The other possibility is that the incident is proof that Kenneth's plan has succeeded and created ramifications in the past; the movie, to its benefit, does not get caught up in the specifics of its time-travel logic). Duplass and Plaza are effortlessly charming in their respective roles. He is always on edge but never to the point where we imagine him hurting anyone or anything but his own hopes and feelings. She possess a droll delivery, cunning smile, and sincerity that manages to even catch a guy who thinks time travel is possible off-guard.

Buried just beneath the surface of their external defenses (for him, plans and, for her, sarcasm) is regret. Another reason the issue of the validity of Kenneth's claim of being able to travel through time is kept to the side is how Derek Connolly's screenplay makes the central mysteries of the story revolve around Darius and Kenneth's motivations for deciding to go into the past. Darius' should be obvious, but Connolly uses the reason as a way to show how her relationship with Kenneth develops. She tells him the full story and lies to Jeff when he asks how she has gained Kenneth's trust. Kenneth is less forthcoming (continuously citing that his plan is top secret), and the way he seems embarrassed by it when he does eventually tell Darius, "It's a girl," shows him to be far more self-aware than his seemingly irrational behavior would suggest.

The material is played mostly for laughs and succeeds in that regard. The undercurrent of lament in Safety Not Guaranteed, though, is what holds the film together. Here are two lonely souls so trapped in the past that they are unable to realize what the present could have in store for them. If they can make a connection with another person, maybe time travel isn't so preposterous a concept after all.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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