Whimsical with an edge. That’s about the only phrase I can come up with to describe this fantastic little gem of a movie. Safety Not Guaranteed is an indie film and winner of the Independent Spirit Award and the Sundance Film Festival‘s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. But if you’re living in a small-town cultural backwater like me, that means this never played at any theatres near you. I know it sure didn’t play anywhere near me, because you say the words, “Time travel,” and I’m there. I am a complete sucker for time travel stories, whether it’s the classic 1970’s SF romance, Time After Time or the mind-bending paradox of 12 Monkeys. Time Travel is right up there with Goetze Caramel Creams for me.
So I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this movie, which follows a cynical Seattle Magazine reporter and his two interns (“the Indian and the Lesbian,” as he not so affectionately calls them) as they investigate the following classified ad:
Wanted: 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.
Needless to say, our reporters are skeptical. Jeff, the world-weary, regret-filled lead is wonderfully underplayed by Jake Johnson. All he cares about is reuniting with an old flame, so for him the story about the flake with the time machine is just a peripheral distraction. But Darius (Aubrey Plaza), one of the interns, strikes up a rapport with Kenneth (actor and executive producer Mark Duplass), the guy who may or may not be able to time travel. He might also be a psycho, but Darius is so full of her own regrets, she doesn’t really care. Gradually, she comes to believe Kenneth might be onto something. When Jeff and Arnau are approached by Feds in black trenchcoats, the goofy little classified ad takes on a new seriousness. But are the Feds after Kenneth because he has a working time machine, or because he’s a dangerous nut job?
In the course of their investigation, the Seattle Magazine team go through some big changes and re-evaluate their own cynical detachment from the world around them. That might sound dry and boring, but it’s not. There are plenty of wacky, near slapstick moments of humor (Kenneth attempting to steal lasers from a research facility while the employees are holding a surprise birthday party is a riot); a few heart-wrenching moments of touching revelation — particularly Darius’ explanation of why she wants the time machine to be real; and perhaps most importantly, a lively, talented cast that really makes you believe in their story.
Unlike many indie films, Safety Not Guaranteed doesn’t sneer at the boring, ordinary “losers” of life. People like Kenneth, or his only friend, an elderly grocery store clerk, or Jeff’s old flame, who’s now a zaftig small-town hairdresser are too often fodder for mean-spirited jokes in indie movies. In Safety Not Guaranteed, they’re the ones with a painfully earned wisdom and the desperate willingness to step out of the narrow confines of their own lives. And to their credit, Jeff, Darius and Arnau are all willing to go along for that journey.
Directed with a classic economy of style by Colin Trevorrow and brilliantly written by Derek Connolly. Two thumbs up!