Safety Not Guaranteed occupies that sacred movie world known as “indie quirk land”, where all characters are wounded souls defined by single personality traits that are also impossibly lovable despite their flaws. It’s a magical place where no problem is so big that it can’t be overcome with a music montage and even the loneliest of souls will find love. This type of movie is becoming increasingly common and increasingly nauseating, but thankfully this little semi-sci-fi lark from first time director Colin Trevorrow is one of the better examples of the genre. It helps that the slight genre twist gives the cast more to work with than a tale exclusively about aging 20 or 30-somethings feeling, like, so lost in the big bad world, man. Although, plenty of the movie is still dedicated to flogging that old hipster horse.
Aubrey Plaza (the live action equivalent of Daria from Beavis and Butthead with slightly less emotional range, if possible) stars as a recent university grad living at home while enjoying the pleasures of a thankless magazine internship. One day she’s offered the chance to help out on a story about a man who wrote a classified ad looking for a time-traveling partner with weapons experience. She’s paired up with a sleazy staff writer (Jake Johnson) and a second sad intern (Karan Soni) and sent off to find the presumably hilarious crazy guy responsible. Since Johnson plans to use the trip to hook up with an old high school flame who gave him his first BJ and peak life experience, Plaza end up going after the weirdo who placed the ad herself and finds Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Unsurprisingly, Kenneth is a bit of a loon who sports the semi-mullet and jean jacket he’s probably had since high school, knows a little too much about guns, and is convinced his actions are being followed by government stooges. However, he’s that appealing kind of crazy that has lost grips with reality for all the right reasons and Plaza starts to fall for the possibly mentally ill gent as they embark on time traveling training.
Much of the success of the movie comes down to Mark Duplass’ turn as Kenneth. The movie lives and dies on the success of that character and thankfully Duplass is up to the task, playing the lost nerd with inexplicable confidence and drive needed to pull of the unexpected pseudo-Spielbergian ending. He’s a nut, but not a victim and as the film wears on and you start to question whether or not he’s even crazy, Duplass is able to garner a lot of empathy and mystery without ever losing sight of what makes the goofball funny. Aubrey Plaza does her dead soul sarcastic thing and she’s good at it, but maybe not the best person to lead a movie. She’s got a funny cadence and delivery as a depressed burn out, but when asked to cheer up, fall in love, or even smile in the movie, it doesn’t quite work. One day a Daria movie will be made and Plaza will be the perfect choice, until then she’s probably best used in supporting roles where’s she can be sardonic scene stealer rather than a limited, often lifeless lead. Jake Johnson is absolutely hysterical as the douchey older writer trying to get his innocent intern laid (Soni’s also quite funny in that sad n’ lonely guy way) and score with his high school sweetheart. It’s am entertaining character that Johnson makes caustically funny and pathetically relatable. The only problem is that his story spirals off and barely connects with the Duplass/Plaza thread (beyond a loose thematic connection of desperately wanting to return to an idealized past) and the only reason it isn’t distracting is because it works as stand alone narrative.
That narrative messiness is the main problem with Safety Not Guaranteed as it can feels like director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly could never quite decide on what type of movie they were making at times. Is it a mockery of eccentric outsiders or is it a sweet love letter to societal rejects? Is the time travel aspect merely a fantasy entry point to a clinically insane man or the genuine theories of a modern day Doc Brown? Should we hate these characters or love them? Do we laugh at Kenneth or cry about his story? The answer is awkwardly yes across the board to everything at a certain point in the movie and the oddly surreal ending certainly doesn’t clear things up. The film is sweet and funny enough that it’s impossible to completely dismiss, but feels a rewrite or two away from coming together in a fully satisfying way. Still, as far as this brand of breezy, indie, quirktacular comedy goes, you could do a lot worse. The movie gets all the possible laughs out of the premise, squeezes out some tears, and ends on a tantalizingly ambiguous note. That’s really all you could ask for in this type of movie, but with the number of clearly talented people involved it isn’t unreasonable to expect a little something more either. At least it’s not another Garden State. Nobody needs that.