SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is exactly the film that you think it is, and that can either be perceived as a positive or negative thing, depending on where you stand. It’s predictable, certainly, but it’s also endearingly heartfelt and poignant, and that’s really what saves the film from falling into the bitter entrapments of so many other indie dramedies.
The film – which comes from newcomers Colin Trevorrow behind the camera and Derek Connolly on the page – is a fast, tightly constructed love story with a few high-concept trimmings to keep things fresher than your usual mumblecore fare. Thrusting the audience into the story almost immediately, Trevorrow wastes absolutely no time in getting right to the heart of the plot: a man, who has taken out an ad in a local magazine, is seeking a co-conspirator with which he might travel back in time.
The story is delightfully absurd, and though the filmmakers obviously have no interest in delving into actual science-fiction territory, there is also a clear interest in the thematic weight of the passage of time. Unfortunately, as soon as it becomes apparent that this film is a character study rather than a heady, existentialist story, it also becomes immediately apparent where the story is going to go. Characters in parallel stories bounce off of one another thematically, all learning a valuable lesson about the fleetingness of time. It’s all a bit safe, but nobody can fault the filmmakers for their lack of earnestness.
Still, the casting is spot on, and it’s the actors who elevate the film above its safe territory. Aubrey Plaza (who is basically playing a similar role to the one that she always does), is really coming into her own as the go-to, cynically apathetic young voice of a generation, and the script finally gives her a chance to stretch her limits in the final act of the film – which, thankfully, she handles admirably. Alongside her is the ever-charming Jake Johnson who, again, plays a virtually identical character to the one he’s fast becoming known for (they might as well have named him Nick here, too). Not that this is a complaint; he’s still as funny as ever, and he handles the majority of the comedy beats throughout with the kind of reckless awkwardness that he does so well. Relative newcomer Karan Soni also does a great job with the small role the film asks of him.
Luckily, Mark Duplass crafts a compellingly abstract character in Kenneth, the would-be time-traveller. Duplass has a tendency to gravitate towards roles in films like this (as both he and his brother are both well-known directors in the mumblecore movement, and this is well within his comfort zone), but Kenneth gives him a chance to do something a little different with the role, and the occasional cracks in his smug facade are a welcome change of pace for the actor.
Where the film really shines, however, is in the final half hour. The pleasant but I’m-already-forgetting-it-as-I’m-watching-it nature of the first hour aside, Trevorrow and Connolly do a really excellent job of hammering down the poignancy in the final act, giving the story some much-needed adrenaline and bringing it to a solid close. The film has some touching statements to make about the relationships we forge and the “pain of an old wound” (to quote a little Don Draper) which can be both irresistible and dangerous, but it all feels just a little “been there, done that”. That being said, a pair of scenes certainly do shine brightly: one, where Plaza and Duplass discuss – with disarming accuracy – the hollowness of unattainable, past moments (“It’s that time, and it’s that place, and it’s that song…”), and another with a song around a campfire.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is a light, enjoyable film, but little else. And though it does well enough in establishing themes which it carries across multiple story-lines to their logical conclusions, everything feels a bit too safe to be as effective as the film thinks they are. But there’s nothing wrong with a little light fare now and again, is there?