“Sound of My Voice,” earlier this summer, reminded us that time travel is one corner of science fiction where you don’t have to break the bank to tell a convincing, thought-provoking tale on screen.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a quirkier, funnier and more romantic variation on a time-travel theme. It’s a sci-fi story of regret, and an indie film with Duplass Brothers touches.
No, the “Jeff, Who Lives at Home/Comfy Chair” guys didn’t write or direct it. But they produced it. Mark Duplass co-stars in it. And director Derek Connolly and writer Colin Trevorrow give it that that offbeat, bemused Duplass Brothers no-budget “mumblecore” tone.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a twentysomething cynic, alone, unloved, unhappy and underemployed in her internship at Seattle Magazine. They have her stocking toilet paper in the bathrooms, and that’s got her down.
“I just expect the worst, and try not to get my hopes up.”
Her chance to prove she’s better than that comes when star reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson of “No Strings Attached”) spies a classified ad in the local paper. Some anonymous tinkerer is looking for a partner to join in him or her on a trip back in time. “This is not a joke,” the ad declares. You need to provide your own weapons. “Safety not guaranteed.”
Jeff heads off to a sleepy corner of the Washington coast, dragging virginal interns Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni) along. The interns stake out the post office box the ad refers to. And tactless, shallow Jeff sets out to do a little time traveling of his own. This town is where his first great flame ended up. He wants to catch up with an old girlfriend.
Darius spies the time traveler and takes her shot at signing on to be his partner. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is a genuine eccentric, a grocery store clerk who babbles on about physics to clueless colleagues, the sort of nerd-kook who challenges potential time travelers with “Can you look fear and danger in the eye?”
The most charming scenes here involve Darius clumsily working her feminine wiles on hapless Kenneth, batting her eyes and peppering her speech with his brand of crackpot aphorisms.
“There’s no sense in nonsense.”
She’s willing to believe what he believes, because “Einstein and David Bowie” can’t be wrong. About time travel, that is.
Duplass is reliably daft, making Kenneth a loon we can never quite get a handle on. Is he mad? Is the government really after him, or is he just paranoid? Duplass milk’s the script’s mystery by not showing all his cards.
Johnson, a veteran third banana (he was in “21 Jump Street,” “Get Him to the Greek,” “Harold & Kumar”), wrings every possible laugh out of Jeff, who is flippant, politically incorrect and shallow enough not to realize that driving an Escalade and living in a condo doesn’t make him the catch of catches, even to ex-girlfriends whose best days are behind them.
But Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) is the break-out star here, an unconventionally cute sulker who could only find fame with an indie film like this, only find her place with an “alternative” character like Darius, a skinny girl with no prospects, going through life in a funk.
“I have no funk,” she says, contradicting her dad (Jeff Garlin). “I’m totally funkless.”
The same can’t be said of “Safety Not Guaranteed.” It’s funky as all get out. It’s only when it loses the funk that it goes wrong.
It’s the film’s attempt at a conventional, big budget finale, with a big prop (Think H.G. Wells) that doesn’t fit our earlier peeks at said prop, that trips it up. Kenneth, a seemingly forthright guy, is caught in fibs. He tells us that he’s “only done this once before,” setting us up for the intriguing possibilities for what he might have succeeded (or failed) to do the last time. Perhaps it involves an old flame (Kristen Bell). There are unfinished, unexplored issues from the past that makes Darius believe. Those are abandoned, too.
The filmmakers lost their nerve, or got cut a big check to slap on the finale that appears here, and it rings false, looks cheesy and defies even the logic that the script is built around.
But they still managed to make a time travel picture that is a winning rumination on the ugliest “R-word” of them all — regret. That’s what ties the various stories and the characters together, and what makes “Safety Not Guaranteed” feel like risky movie making, a tale told without a net.
MPAA Rating:R for language including some sexual references
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake. M Johnson.
Credits: Directed by Derek Connolly, written by Colin Trevorrow. A FilmDistrict release.
Running time: 1:34