Safety Not Guaranteed

Why is it that an eccentric ad in a newspaper requesting a time-travel partner spawned a popular Internet meme and provided the inspiration for a indie comedy? Time travel seems to be a concept that we relegate to science fiction paperbacks and stylized Hollywood comedies – it’s not to be taken seriously. But what’s interesting, and what Safety Not Guaranteed identifies, is that individuals time travel all the time. We just don’t call it time travel. Instead, it’s “nostalgia,” or a “reunion,” or a “homecoming.”  Whatever we call it, the purpose ends up being the same: a visit to the past that affects our present. And we don’t need a Delorean, circa 1985, to accomplish that.

One journalist and two interns from a mid-brow magazine journey to a small American town to find the author of a quirky time travel ad and investigate if he truly believes in what he wrote or if he’s simply another crazy loon. However, that’s not the entire reason; the journalist Jeff (Jake Johnson) is using the piece to fund an all-expenses paid trip down memory lane to reconnect with an old high school flame. Safety Not Guaranteed follows these overlapping stories by separating the group into two – Darius (Aubrey Plaza) gains the trust of the time travel ad author Kenneth (Mark Duplass) and follows him as his protege, and Jeff and the other intern Arnau (Karan Soni) juggle their time between chasing Jeff’s dream girl and lounging in the hotel room. By juxtaposing these two story lines, it becomes obvious how thematically similar the two journeys are . While Kenneth’s steadfast belief in his ability to time travel and rescue the love of his life from a tragic accident is initially played for laughs, it takes on a more moving note when it’s clear that this is the same path Jeff is taking – sans time machine. Maybe it isn’t as easy to pigeonhole Kenneth as crazy loon after all.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a indie film refreshingly free of the overwhelming quirkiness that seems to typify the genre. There’s only one peculiar character here but he is firmly planted in an ordinary world without mute teenagers, belligerent grandparents, precocious children, or a sucidical gay uncle who studies Proust (I’m looking at you Little Miss Sunshine, which was incidentally produced by the same people as this film). Rather than a smorgasbord of eccentricities, the film focuses its energy on Kenneth, peeling away layers from the character but never fully explaining him or his motivations. I really like what Duplass does with the role by never making Kenneth simply a deluded caricature – the way he delivers his lines makes it possible for the audience to believe in the truth of what he says even if it is in the context of training for a trans-dimensional time journey. It is a surprisingly earnest, moving, and funny look at the choices we make to revisit the successes, or rectify the failures, of our past. Definitely one of the best films this year.

Grade: A

Sidenote: Safety Not Guaranteed also features a heartbreaking go-kart scene much like a similarly depressing scene (also in a go-kart) from Breaking Bad. Who knew that all it takes is a few tears while driving a motorized vehicle to get the waterworks flowing?

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