A film review by Craig J. Koban August 11, 2012


2012, R, 94 mins.


Kenneth: Mark Duplass / Jeff: Jake Johnson / Darius: Aubrey Plaza / Arnau: Karan Soni / Liz: Jenica Bergere / Mr. Britt: Jeff Garlin / Bridget: Mary Lynn Rajskub

Directed by Colin Trevorrow / Written by Derek Connolly

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED takes its title partially from a classified ad within the movie that, in turn, is based on an actual ad that ran in Backwoods Home Magazine in the 90’s.  It simply states the following: 

“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.  I have only done this once before.  Safety not guaranteed.” 

The preposterous ad comes to the forefront during a magazine article pitch meeting near the film’s opening scenes.  A disillusioned college graduate named Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is working as a lowly intern at a Seattle newspaper.  She and a fellow intern – a Biology major that hopes to pad his resume with journalistic experience– named Arnau (Karan Soni) are hand picked by one of the newspaper’s writers, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) to assist him on a new investigative assignment.  It requires them to track down the source of the aforementioned ad and eventually find out just how crazy or sane the person is that wrote it.  

The three embark on the road and off to the seaside community of Ocean View, Washington, where they believe the writer resides.  Darius really has nothing better to do with her time and has very few other career aspirations (she is so moody at a job interview for a menial and seemingly easy-to-get waitressing position that the prospective boss considers her a “bad hire” and turns her down). Jeff seems little interested in tracking down the ad’s writer, seeing as he has an ulterior motive for traveling to Washington (it involves him hooking back up with and old high school one-night stand that has recently followed him Facebook).  

The trio do discover that the ad writer is a goofy and perpetually paranoid looking Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), who works at a local grocery store and seems to spend an awful lot of time looking over his shoulder and avoiding contact with most of the outside world.  Jeff’s initial attempt to befriend Kenneth ends in abrupt failure, after which he asks Darius to try her hand with the reclusive, edgy, and potentially schizophrenic man and convince him that she will be just the right time travel companion.  He begrudgingly welcomes her in and agrees to “train” her for her mission ahead, leaving the initially befuddled - but highly curious - Darius in a position that she was not expecting to find herself in when she agreed to the assignment.



It’s very clear right from the get go that Kenneth is a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  Outwardly, he seems fairly pleasant minded, soft spoken, and sincere, but his erratic behavior says otherwise and hints a destabilizing mental neurosis.  He not only seems to believe that he is able to build a time travel machine that will indeed send him back to the past, but he also thinks that he is being constantly perused by government agents that want to stop his future temporal trekking activities.  The more Darius gets to know Kenneth the more Kenneth engages her in a series of peculiar training exercises that involve gun handling, martial arts, and calisthenics.  She, of course, willingly goes along for the ride and does everything he dutifully expects of her (which includes breaking into a scientific research center to steal some much needed components that he requires to finish his time travel machine).  Just when she thinks he could not be any more abnormal and unstable, evidence begins to surface that government agents might actually be following him.  Predictably, she gradually seems him less as a fanatical lunatic and more as a sensitive, genuine and caring human being that she begins to fall in love with. 

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is arguably the first time travel movie that does not explicitly explore the nature of time travel or pesky paradoxes that often permeates and taints time travel genre films.  It actually morphs into a sweet and kind hearted romance about young twenty and thirtysomethings looking for love in peculiar places.  The central budding relationship between Darius and Kenneth follows a fairly predicable path, but the performances by Plaza and Duplass hit their marks so assuredly and convincingly that you’re almost willing to forgive the film’s nagging plot contrivances.  The film - directed with a simple economy by Colin Trevorrow and written by Derek Connolly – displays a detached sentimentality and affection for its characters, but not to the point where it sheepishly scrubs away any semblance of cynicism or makes the whole affair feel disagreeably saccharine. 

Aubrey Plaza – a smoky-eyed beauty whose acid-tongued deadpan delivery compliments her natural good looks rather well - has not been given much in the way of starring roles before, but here she gives a breakout comic/dramatic performance as the outwardly pessimistic, but inwardly vulnerable and sweet tempered Darius who slowly allows herself to buy into Kenneth’s worldview.  Mark Duplass has the sort of easygoing charm and innocence of an Owen Wilson that makes him really hard to hate, and he manages to walk the very slippery slope of making Kenneth both a figure of our compassion and spite.  In a lesser actor’s hands the character could have been a crude and farcical buffoon, but Duplass is shrewd enough to make Kenneth better rounded and credible, despite his actions, behaviors, and plans that should lead him right into a straight jacket.  I also liked how one subplot – involving Jeff shirking his journalistic responsibilities to hook back up with a women that he has not forgotten for 20 years – seems to confront genre clichés and boldly tips them upside down.  You would think that the F-bomb uttering, frat boy and partying mentality of Jeff would only seem to want to score with this woman again, and when he discovers that she is slightly heavy and not what he remembers, he balks at reconnecting with her.  Compellingly, he decides that he does want to meet with her and get to know her, which then evolves in ways that I did not see coming.   

Alas, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is not fool proof as a feel-good indie mashup of the romcom and sci-fi flick: The notion of two societal fringe figures like Darius and Kenneth falling in love via their growing affection for their own respective weirdness has been done before, not to mention that the supporting role of Arnau as the nerdy, shy, weak voiced, and sexually inexperienced Indian intern is unavoidably a part of the script for simplistic comic relief and its requirement to propel him to becoming “a man.”  Yet, I liked how SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED traverses between its divergent genres and supersedes most of our expectations for the material.  It does this largely thanks to the understated charm and appeal of Plaza and Duplass, both whom treat the rather far-fetched story and premise with a grounded poignancy.  The final scene of the film is also unusually ambitious and ambitiously ambiguous in the sense that it never really spells out whether (a) Kenneth is indeed a crazy person or (b) if he actually built a time machine that works.  SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED never dumbs its story and conclusion down for easy digestion: it trusts smart viewers to make up their own minds.   

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