Let's be clear from the start. I'm more than fine with the basic idea behind Safety Not Guaranteedthat a socially awkward and potentially crazy grocery clerk/amateur scientist has invented a time machine and posted an ad in the classifieds looking for someone to reenact Back to the Future with him. There is room in my heart for low-concept science fiction, and there's certainly no glut of indie sci-fi romantic comedies out there.
And it's not that I disliked the second plot componentthat a Seattle magazine writer sees the ad and thinks it would make for a good feature story. But I cannot proceed here without calling out The People Who Make Movies for their strange and consistent inability to accurately portray a newsroom, or really anything having to do with the print journalism profession. Because to me, the funniest moment of the entire film is when Jeff (Jake Johnson), our hunky, Mark Ruffalo-look-alike, Escalade-driving, Seattle Magazine reporter, pitches the time traveler story to his editor and proceeds to ask for two interns to assist him on what will be a week-long reporting trip to the coast of Washington. And that editor doesn't raise an eyebrow at the idea of the magazine paying for such a tripso go ahead and add "fantasy" to this multi-genre film.
Those interns are Arnau (Karan Soni), an overachieving undergrad looking to bolster his resume for "diversity" as he applies for doctoral programs, and Darius (Aubrey Plaza), an underachieving college graduate who can't even land a paying job as a waitress.
As preposterous as their existence in this film is, they are a necessary and fun component here for what could also be described as a road trip movie (if you're playing at home, Safety Not Guaranteed now qualifies under the indie, sci-fi, fantasy, rom-com and road trip categories). And while most films that aim to please so many audiences end up pleasing no one and annoying many, Safety Not Guaranteed manages to juggle a lot here with surprisingly few missteps.
The film is based on a 1997 classified ad written by a magazine employee as filler that read: "Wanted: someone 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. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." Creative, right? This film creates the back story for that fictitious ad, an ingenious idea that is bolstered by the wonderful character Kenneth (Mark Duplass), our time-traveling wannabe.
That Kenneth is a serious man on a serious mission is evidenced early on, when he quickly rebuffs Jeff's attempt to join him on his journey, telling the undercover journalist that he "doesn't know pain," as in the pain of life. That leaves it up to Darius to convince Kenneth that she's qualified to begin training for the mission, and she works her magic in brilliant fashion as he shelves soup cans while working at the grocery store.
In one of her first big film roles, Plaza plays a version of the slacker government employee that she's perfected on "Parks and Recreation," though Darius can't hide her charm as well as April Ludgate can. And that's a good thing: Plaza is brilliant here as she gets to know Kenneth and his motivations for attempting to build a time machine from technology he has stolen from various labs.
Kenneth is rightly concerned that others will not take his endeavor seriously. The skeptical Darius feigns interest with ease in these early scenes. It's only later onas she starts to realize her time traveling partner may not fit the "earnest crackpot" narrative that Jeff expects for his storythat the film finds its way.
Whether the time machine works, or is even real, are questions the film answers, though it's at its clunkiest when it tackles the sci-fi component head on: The film's entire special effects budget is used on one scene near the end that had me laughing, which I'm not sure was the intention of director Colin Trevorrow.
There are some odd incongruities in Safety Not Guaranteed, especially a secondary story between Jeff and a former girlfriend that goes nowhere important. But when the camera stays focused on Kenneth and Darius, there is an endearing charisma between the two that is richly dotted with humor and melancholy. It's an odd film for sure, but wholly originaleven if it insists on pretending newspapers and magazines have money to burn.
Safety Not Guaranteed continues at the Wilma Theatre.