Mark Duplass isn't someone I hold in warm regard. He, along with his brother Jay, was responsible for Jeff, Who Lives At Home, which I found to be wildly overrated and not the sign of 'genius', more annoying than clever or cute. Thus, knowing that Mark would be the central character of Safety Not Guaranteed made me wary of entering this world. As I found, Safety Not Guaranteed has moments of cleverness and has some good ideas crawling around it, but try as I might I could never shake the feeling that what we got was a filmed version of a draft of a script rather than an actual film itself.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a frustrated Millennial stuck in an internship at Seattle Magazine. Perpetually morose, aware of her own genius and unhappy that her witty comments go unnoticed or unappreciated, she plugs away at her menial work. That is, until cocky Seattle reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) comes upon a strange 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. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."He wants to investigate this ad, sensing a sort of wild comic expose or a tale of wacko. He is approved, and he takes Darius and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), or as Jeff describes them at the meeting, "the lesbian and the Indian".
So it's off to nearby Ocean View to find the ad's author. They do, but the author rejects Jeff's overtures. Using both her wits and a hint of her feminine charms, Darius gains the confidence of the author, grocery stockboy Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Kenneth is convinced that he has built a time machine and that government forces are after him. After making Darius (whom he doesn't know works for Jeff) undergo a battery of tests, Kenneth begins to trust her enough to make her his travelling Companion.
Allow me to stop for a moment, but I wonder...are the Duplass Boys fans of River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who)?
As Darius and Kenneth continue getting things ready for their journey back in time (up to and including breaking into a lab for material), Jeff has ulterior motives to coming to Ocean View. He's there to find whether an old flame from high school (who, he helpfully informs us, gave him his first blow job), is still as attractive now as she was back then (and he is still now). His past love, Liz (Jessica Bergere) seems like a good fit, they have a wonderful afternoon (including an afternoon delight), but she declines his offer to move to Seattle with him. Jeff shows a vulnerability we've never seen before, and in his dejection he goes on a bender (or as much of a bender as possible in a small Washington State town), finally getting the introverted Arnau to embrace his youth and lose his virginity (Jeff thinking that at 22, Arnau has waited too long).
Darius and Kenneth, meanwhile, appear to be falling for each other. This might affect Kenneth's mission: returning to 2001 to stop his first love from dying in a car accident when someone ran into her house (I guess stopping September 11 isn't all that important in the great scheme of things, is it). However, Jeff's investigation (surprising he did ANY work given his general lackadaisical demeanor) uncovers some shocking news: far from being dead, Kenneth's old flame Belinda is very much alive.
Darius goes to interview Belinda (Kristen Bell) who has a different memory of Kenneth: there was a car accident, but it was Kenneth who ran his car into her house, and they were never actually dating. Darius, confused and angry, goes to confront Kenneth but not before actual government agents talk to her and Jeff about their connection to Kenneth.
Kenneth still holds to his ideas of time travel, now saying that they must have already altered the future to where Belinda is alive. He is angry that Darius would not believe him and that she was with Jeff, and he runs off. Everyone runs off after Kenneth, and Darius tells her that she lied only about working for Jeff, but that everything else she told him was true. Kenneth accepts this and invites her onto his time machine/boat. With a push of a button, Kenneth and Darius disappear...
Sometimes, I find that cleverness goes only so far. Safety Not Guaranteed as I said appears to be a draft of a script (by Derek Connelly) because there are so many story threads that don't seem to tie in. Poor Soni: his Arnau has such little importance in Safety Not Guaranteed that he doesn't add much to the film save a chance for Jeff to have someone to mentor. I won't go into how Arnau is a stereotype of the insecure nerd and highly-educated Indian student.
Also, given how Jeff is at work, it does boggle the mind that he would have risen to high rank anywhere. It would have benefited the story to have made at least ONE person slightly rational (getting openly drunk at a high school football game and hitting on high school girls makes Jeff creepy, not funny like the film thinks he is). Still, when he is rejected by Liz, Johnson manages to have a good moment of genuine hurt, even sadness, hinting that Jeff is a deeper character than the script allowed him to be.
Now, going on to our leads, Plaza played her part correctly: the slightly sour, too-smart-for-her-own-good girl (curious that Darius reminded me of the MTV animated series Daria...coincidence, I'm sure). Her performance indicates a bright future and was a positive: Darius may be morose, but she has reason to be. In regards to Duplass, I can't get away from the idea that he looks like Ron Livingston's older brother or cousin. Again, I thought he played the part correctly: Kenneth is obviously paranoid and delusional, and his (cliched) ability to make the facts fit his scenario rather than vice-versa is to be expected in a film about a man who thinks he can travel back in time.
However, despite his openly criminal acts there is something endearing about Kenneth, an almost innocent acceptance that whatever he says or thinks is true despite all evidence to the contrary. One almost likes him, especially when he gives Darius a rendition of the song he plans to perform to Belinda (Everybody's Talking In Their Sleep) which is actually a nice tune that I would like to see nominated for Best Original Song. Colin Trevorrow brought strong performances out of his leads and Johnson, but could not overcome some of the script's flaws.
The conclusion feels rushed: all the threads (the government agents, the conclusion of the story) came together rapidly, as if saying we have to finish things quickly. Also, curiously while the genesis of all this is an ad, in a technical sense no one actually ANSWERS the ad (both Jeff and Darius approach Kenneth knowing he wrote the ad rather than meeting him in reply to it). Also, we're told he's done this before, and perhaps it signals that he "changed the future to where Belinda lives", but we never learn anything about his first journey.
In a film about time travel, you either do it or do not, so Safety Not Guaranteed is built on that. The ending is a bit of a genuine surprise, but perhaps the only one the film could have taken. I'd say Safety Not Guaranteed has its heart in a right place, and that it wants to be cute and clever. It's a little too hip for its own good, it wants to put in a lot without much follow through, but it has good ideas rattling in it. All that is enough to make Safety Not Guaranteed signal a good future for most people involved with it.