Movie Review: Safety Not Guaranteed
Recapturing past glories, saving a loved one, fixing a mistake–these are all things that we, as humans, have wished for at one point or another. Time travel isn’t alluring to us because it’s a neat concept (it is, but that’s not the point). No, time travel seduces our imaginations because it would give us the ability to fix everything. Every problem, issue, and mistake we ever made could be altered in some fashion–this power would be overwhelming. We love our time travel stories, but they don’t always end happily. For every Doctor Who there is a bleak Terminator waiting to warn us of the future, and how time travel could be misused.
Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t your typical time travel story; the potential science-fiction aspects are merely a thin wrapping around a very humanistic piece of fiction. What would you change? Is your life where you want it to be? These are questions that Safety Not Guaranteed asks of it’s characters. It’s a funny, moving, and at times heartbreaking film. I’m not sure what I’d do if I had a time machine, but I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t change a thing about Safety Not Guaranteed.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a disaffected twenty-something still feeling the loss of her mother when she was a teen. As an intern for a local magazine she’s tasked with doing things like buying toilet paper for the office, and then refilling the restroom stalls. It’s not exactly glamorous work, and her boss (24 and Mr. Show’s Mark Lynn Rajskub) is a terribly prickly woman to work under. When one of the other magazine writers (Jake Johnson) pitches a story idea revolving around a quirky classified ad looking for someone to assist with a time traveling mission (a mission wherein safety is not guaranteed, thus the film title), Darius is dragged along. Along the way she befriends Kenneth (The League’s Mark Duplass), the man who wrote the ad.
Kenneth is a damaged man in a severe state of arrested development. He’s eager to time travel in order to save his high school girlfriend from a premature death. But, you can see that his survivalist training and his pseudo-science aren’t just meant to help him in his “mission” into the past. These are coping mechanisms for a man who’s been abandoned and neglected by society at large. Kenneth wants to be something that he’s not; he wants to be a hero, and he wants to fix the mistakes that he’s made in the past. These are admirable goals, goals that we’ve all probably wanted to achieve. Mark Duplass walks a fine line as Kenneth, at once making him sympathetic and frightening. Does he really believe in this time travel mumbo jumbo? Duplass’s performance is strong enough that even if Kenneth does believe in this time traveling mission, we have to question whether or not we believe it–just like Darius.
Aubrey Plaza’s Darius begins the film in the same sort of state that you’d recognize from her other performances like Parks and Recreation. She’s sarcastic and bitter, and this is used as a shield to protect herself from being hurt. But, her relationship with Kenneth is charming and disarming. She grows. She opens up, and she becomes a better person through her time with Kenneth. Plaza gets to begin the film in the same place we’ve seen her perform before, but Darius becomes so much more. Plaza is a delight to behold; she’s funny and emotionally interesting. This performance shows really strong work from her.
The same can be said of Duplass. He’s a delight here; playing against his type from The League. On that show he’s a brash and self-confident man with few morals. In Safety, he’s a kind but broken man who’s willing to break his morals if it leads to his ultimate goal. Duplass sells the character effortlessly, nimbly dodging what could have been cartoon-ish Kenneth. Though Kenneth is larger than life, he still feels grounded enough to make us sympathize with him.
The concept, the tenets, and the potential pitfalls of any time travel story are found within Safety’s plot, but instead of being the focus, they are the lens through which we witness the characters. And even if there are several small potential hints of a larger time travel gimmick (pay close attention to what certain characters say about their past throughout the film), it’s never the main attraction. What’s on display in Safety Not Guaranteed is a breezy, funny, sometimes sad dramedy about the choices we make and our longing to fix the past. Don’t come into the film expecting a raucous time travel comedy, Safety Not Guaranteed is an indie film after all. It’s not Back to the Future. It’s a quieter, more intimate character study. Safety Not Gauranteed is not a film for everyone, but it’s themes and strong acting from the principal cast make it worth checking out.