A lot of lower budget movies that clock in around 80-90 minutes are forced by a number of constraints, primarily financial, to at least have a strong premise. In fact that’s probably the reason the movie is getting made in the first place – not enough star power or backing to get made with substantial resources, but intriguing enough to get made at all.
Safety Not Guaranteed is no exception in this regard. When the biggest names attached to your movie are a guy who is a founder of a genre called “mumblecore” (Mark Duplass) and a girl whose most notable role is that of a jaded, serial mumbler on Parks and Recreation (Aubrey Plaza), it would behoove the project to have something an uninitiated viewer might like straight off – which it does. Within the first five minutes we’re introduced to Plaza’s unpaid, socially reclusive magazine intern who gets swept up when, at a staff meeting, a full time writer (Jake Johnson) chooses her and an innocuous though worrisome Indian undergrad (Karan Soni) as his investigate team. What they are investigating is the (apparently based on real life) absurd classified a Pacific Northwestern man has placed where a companion is sought to travel with him back in time, provided they are a true believer and can provide their own weapons because, naturally, safety is not guaranteed.
After a half-assed attempt to prove he’s the right companion fizzles out, Johnson, who chose the story entirely to pursue a prior fling with a woman who lives in the same town, convinces Plaza to audition. After some uneasy talk early on, Duplass sees a smart, shielded girl who just might fit the bill. At this point in the movie the storylines become predictably splintered, with Plaza slowly infiltrating Duplass’ unusual though not entirely psychotic program. As the trust builds between the two, with Plaza allowing herself to experience the most forbidden of hipster emotions, true sincerity, the audience grows uneasy waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of coming clean about the magazine article.
Before that happens, though, the real best part of the movie (in my opinion) is taking place as Johnson manages, with surprising ease, to slide back into the life of his youthful paramour. In a kind of behavioral solidarity, while Plaza drops her guard so does Johnson his infatuation with materialism (his mentioning his Escalade takes on a sour note of empty self delusion) and he allows himself to imagine the kind of slow, normal, fulfilling life his Seattle setup isn’t providing.
Both fantasies are spoiled by the time the movie needs to wrap up, though neither unsuccessfully. Johnson does some great work as the truly sad and drifting 30 something, a decade younger than Rob Corddry’s psychotic sad-sack in Hot Tub Time Machine, whose next decisions could push him towards the kind of life he thinks he covets, irrevocably dooming him to the psychic despondency of second-guessing.
Not irrevocably at all, though, because we’re talking about time machines. Duplass plays the nutcase in question with the right blend of firm belief and wacky aloofness, though really remains static, instead allowing Plaza to emote as best she can. Though rather limited in terms of dramatic range, the natural skepticism someone like Plaza exudes works well in this kind of environment, since every member of the audience is harboring the same doubts.
In terms of a finale I’m not totally sure what the movie was trying to get at. With Johnson’s plot-line it clearly argues the difficulty of literal time travel, revisiting people and situations from your past when you’re entirely different people. On the opposite side, is a good moral to end on that when your life sucks because you can’t regain the woman you love (Duplass), or because you are too scared to talk to people (Plaza), you should just find some other damaged soul and try to completely escape to a different time?
I know when movies apply “indie”, “quirky”, or whatever fey modifier to their description as a moviegoer we’re basically supposed to forgive heaps of nonsense because it’s “different”, and that’s good enough. While this is a completely harmless and mildly satisfying way to spend 90 or so minutes, writing this up now I can’t think of why I would recommend it to anyone.