"My calibrations are flippin' pinpoint, okay?"
Colin Trevorrow's time-travel indie "Safety Not Guaranteed" is undoubtedly a minor work, a purposefully low-key film with its dramatic stakes built around muted and slowly-revealed emotions rather than any sort of physical danger. It fits right in with the current overly quirky indie film trend, for better and for worse. However, this does not prevent it from telling an effectively touching and even surprising story, centered on notable and promising performances.
"Safety" opens with a black screen and a flat voice-over: "How far back do you want me to go?" The voice is that of Aubrey Plaza (familiar to me as the sarcastic and deadpan April on "Parks and Recreation"), and the characteristic blankness of her tone here suggests a certain numbed apathy. The question of how far back, in a movie that expressly concerns the idea of time-travel as a cornerstone of its premise, is a slyly deceptive one with which to begin, because Plaza's character, Darius, is actually in a job interview; she gives too little pretense of taking it seriously to impress the potential employer. This seemingly off-topic opening sets the tone of the film, emphasizing its concern with mostly everyday problems and heartbreaks, but also cleverly pointing out, due to our potential for initial misunderstanding, that these things have a connection with the concept of time-travel. The opening also primes us to accept the stealth structure of the film—a series of one-on-one "interviews," varying in level of casualness and in purpose, that make up the backbone of the story.
Darius is a bored and jaded college graduate, self described as "not a quality hire," and living at home with her widower father, who is of course Facebook friends with her college roommate and somewhat unbelievably accuses Darius of being a virgin. "How do I eject?" she deadpans, with an impressive mix of incredulity and passivity. Her internship at a Seattle magazine is the kind where she takes names and fetches toilet paper. Her mother died when she was young, and she is painfully nostalgic for childhood, a time when she just naturally expected to be happy. Now, she says, "Everything cool is gone."
With this background, it makes sense that Darius jumps at the opportunity to tag along with Jeff, one of the magazine's writers (Jake Johnson, of "New Girl"), as he sets out to investigate, with growing disbelief and curiosity, the "weird" writer of an advertisement seeking a time-traveling partner:
Jeff tries to join up with would-be timelord Kenneth (Mark Duplass, of "The League" and "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"), but is rejected because his cool guy schtick cannot hide the fact that he is a poser, and he has no specific reason ready to hand for why he would even want to time travel. Then Darius—who the other young intern, a stereotypically nerdy looking Indian college student named Arnau (Karan Soni), unsubtly notes is much prettier than Jeff—for once in her life intrigued, gives it a shot herself, and with the help of some hilarious lurking behind sunglasses stands, ends up befriending Kenneth by pretending to take his plans absolutely seriously and imitating his lapses into important-sounding technical/military vocabulary. The scene where Darius and Kenneth meet for the first time in the grocery store where he works is full to brimming with sharp banter-y dialogue that makes it feel instantly classic and memorable. It is one of the best written scenes in a generally strong script, and both Plaza and Duplass handle the back and forth rhythm and the self-seriousness expertly. As their relationship progresses—he totally enveloped in his plans, she (and we) wondering just how delusional he really is—Plaza especially does a fine job of showing both Darius' doubt and her desire to give in to her rediscovery of wonder as she begins to admire and respect, and maybe love, this guy who professes to be building a time machine. The problem with the middle section of the movie, however, is that the chemistry between these two is always iffy at best, and is complicated by the fact that Kenneth wants to travel in time to save his wife from being killed. (More than that I won't spoil, but the script by Derek Connolly has several twists that, while neither game-changing nor impossible to see coming, do nicely shed different light on the characters and premise.) And Duplass, although admirably committed to the role, never really makes it clear that Kenneth more than simply comes to trust Darius.Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.
"Safety" also falls into several independent movie industry cliches, the most annoying to me being the incessant jangly indie songs that play beneath dialogue scenes that would do just fine or better without them, especially in the first half. Presumably they are supposed to imbue the scenes with a light-hearted or comedic undertone, but they mostly just distract from the characters and erode the pseudo-realism of movies like this. That said, there are a couple of transitions and montages that are well scored. The film also risks being too sugary in its earnestness. The themes of nostalgia and regret are present, and not heavy-handed, but the emphasis on romance and a vague "believing," which again the music oversells, at times threatens to take the story in a sticky-sweet direction. The ending is also somewhat . . . unclear, despite dramatic appearances, and left me with an inconclusive feeling.
Trevorrow has a secret weapon, however, in Jake Johnson, who makes his too-cool-for-school magazine writer into a tragic case of a deeply nostalgic man who feels past his prime and longs for his glory days. His real motive is to reconnect with a past girlfriend, who he is startled to find has actually aged and is no longer the hot blonde he remembers. As their renewed relationship bumbles through ups and downs (in a nice parallel to the main plot), Johnson gets to do everything from comparing his old flame to a fairy tale character representing lost purity to drowning his sorrows and trying to live large vicariously through Arnau (who otherwise has next to nothing to do) by helping him hook up with some random girl—a shockingly wrong-headed idea that the script sadly lets pass with no comment. But Johnson does all these things convincingly. There is one brilliant, sad, hilarious shot of him whirling around in a go-kart teary-eyed, with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other, that perfectly encapsulates both the childishness and the sadness hidden beneath the sunglasses of the successful and confident guy who defines himself by his job, his Escalade, and his condo.
Plaza, too, is a standout, here combining her trademark cynicism and deadpan comic delivery with a greater vulnerability and sensitivity. It is not so different from April's general arc on "Parks and Rec" really, but she carries it off so convincingly and effortlessly that I didn't mind. Hopefully this is just the start of bigger things for both these actors.
Despite its flaws, this is a simple and effective film about emotions and choices, a gentle comedy rooted in tragedy that takes both regret and hope very seriously.
"Safety Not Guaranteed" (R) ***1/2 (Available on Netflix Instant)