A man places an ad in a local paper looking for a partner to go on a journey with him – but this particular man is not looking to make a love connection, he is in need of a companion to travel through time with him. He’s done it once before, but you’ll have to bring to your own weapons because, as he tells it, “safety not guaranteed.” From this seed of an idea, director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly have crafted Safety Not Guaranteed, a low-fi romance that benefits both from charismatic performances and the intriguing background that the time travel element provides.
The film is loosely based on a true story – an ad did appear in a Seattle paper, exactly as it appears in the film, but Connolly and Trevorrow have taken their film in a different direction – stuff mentioned in the ad (payment, that it’s been done before) never comes up after its first read, and no one ever says anything else about it. Instead, the film focuses on a trio of intrepid reporters (really just one mild douchebags and two interns who don’t have a choice in the matter) who decide to craft a piece about the man who has placed the ad. A fluff piece, something silly. Of course, they find much more than they bargained for once their investigation commence.
Jake Johnson stars as douchebag reporter Jeff (who is using the trip to a beach town that he spent some of his formative teen summers at to also pursue an old flame), Aubrey Plaza as unsmiling skeptic intern Darius, and Karan Soni as nerdy intern Arnau. Upon hitting Ocean View, Washington, Darius flexes her prodigious investigative muscles to find the ad’s writer – Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a loner and a rebel who is indeed building a time machine and who is convinced that people know and are thus out to get him. Darius poses as a possible companion for Kenneth and, despite his latent paranoia, he falls for it hook, line, and sinker.
Kenneth accepts Darius as his time-traveling companion and the two embark on a series of amusing and energetic training exercises meant to ready them for what’s ahead, both in terms of prepping the mission and the actual mission itself. Kenneth admits that Darius has come further in the process than anyone else, and that they will now be learning alongside each other. Clearly, Kenneth is not just talking about the training exercises. The pair bond over shared scars – both emotional and physical, and it’s obvious from Plaza’s goofy grins (side note: it’s unspeakably wonderful to see the normally frowning Plaza light up with a smile) what’s going to happen here, but that doesn’t make their love story any less charming.
Kenneth and Darius are both outsiders, and while the time travel construct of the film is what brings them together, it’s the pursuit of something more (and possibly better) than what they are that bonds them together. Plaza and Duplass have a wonderful chemistry with each other, and their ease with each other feels natural and right; it’s just lovely to watch them grow into each other. Yet, Safety Not Guaranteed never quite reaches its full potential – though it’s short, certain parts drag and, while it’s lovely and sweet, it never feels significant.
The Upside: Duplass and Plaza have lovely chemistry that’s quite nice to watch unfold and they put in a pair of great performances. Up-and-comer Jake Johnson has the most compelling and emotion-mining arc of the film. It’s an all-around charming and sweet misfit love story.
The Downside: The film doesn’t keep up the pace in the third act, sagging a bit as it attempts to jump to its next important steps. As fun of a watch as it is, it’s just not particularly memorable.
On the Side: Here, have a giggle.