Call me biased, but I’m quick to put out the welcome mat for any movie – good, bad or indifferent – that resists easy categorizing. That’s certainly the charm of Safety Not Guaranteed, which flirts with two very different genres yet never goes steady with either. Maybe it’s a slacker comedy or maybe, since time travel figures at the centre of the tale, it’s science fiction. Neatly, the script embarks on one journey while dangling the possibility of another: the prospect of taking a sudden leap from comic reality into the realm of pure imagination. So we wait, expecting to face an imminent decision – whether to suspend our disbelief, make a similar leap of faith, and trust to the consequences. And we wait some more, until the film plays a delightful trick on us: Decisions based on trust are precisely the issue here.
There’s no mistaking the tone at the start. Twentysomething and still living at home, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) possesses the slacker’s raw honesty to a self-negating fault. At a job interview, presented with the boilerplate query about future ambitions, she replies in her stark monotone: “To expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up.” So it’s back to her unpaid internship in the dying medium of print. There, at a story meeting typically bereft of story ideas, someone points to the appearance of this classified ad: “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed.” (Actually placed in a survivalist magazine, the ad is a fact – the movie, rest assured, is not.)
So Darius, fellow intern Arnau, and Jeff the lazy staff reporter (Jake Johnson) are given their assignment: to write a colour piece on the wacko behind the ad. The search takes them to a coastal town in Washington State, where the plot quickly divides into two strands: (1) Being lazy, Jeff seeks out an old high-school flame who happens to live in the area, delegating (2) Darius to track down the loony-tune. His name is Kenneth (Mark Duplass). He toils by day in a grocery store and by night on his time machine, with attention duly paid to lasers and particle accelerators. Not surprisingly, Kenneth is paranoid, convinced that government agents are surreptitiously dogging his every move. Oops, turns out they are, and Darius wonders, “Maybe he’s not totally insane.”
From there, in the adroit hands of director Colin Trevorrow, the narrative’s twin strands begin slyly to interweave. After all, in hoping to revisit the purity of a youthful romance, what is Jeff but a time traveller, trying to shed his cynicism by going back to innocence? Meanwhile, with amorous sparks flying between Darius and him, Kenneth lays out the purpose of his own temporal retreat to the last decade: “The mission is to do with regret and mistakes. The mission is also about love.” In both cases, then, the destination is the past, but not to a specific moment or a particular place – rather, it’s back to a state of mind, and to a place in the heart. That emotional journey is just as hard, perhaps impossible too, but we’ve all taken it – we’ve all been on that time machine.
The ensuing adventures are not without detours, some of them amusing and others just idle. The nerdy Arnau, for example, is a bit of a fifth wheel, just wobbling around awaiting a big comic scene that arrives with a very small payoff. Much more impressive is Duplass’s high-wire performance as Kenneth, consistently walking a tight-rope that runs between supreme confidence and abject naïveté. No doubt a fall is coming, but when is a fall a leap of faith and an act of trust?
That’s the question hovering over the entire film right to the climax. The characters must answer but so must the audience. Why? Because life keeps inviting us to tumble – into love, into depression, into hopes wild or grounded, into the fiction of movies good or bad or indifferent. This one’s last words are a familiar affirmation: “I do.” Well, me too.