This review was originally published on March 26, 2012…
“Safety Not Guaranteed” has a lot of things going for it: Mumblecore superstar Mark Duplass (in both a producing and acting capacity), the adorably dour Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and the prospect of time travel. Furthermore, it was shot in Seattle, which is relevant to the interests of certain movie critics who live there. How can you go wrong? Turns out you can’t. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is fantastic.
Plaza plays Darius, a young intern at a Seattle magazine who has, as her father puts it, “a cloud following” her. Her mother died when she was very young and it’s clear that she hasn’t let anyone else in since. She’s not averse to happiness, but she doesn’t seem to be working too hard to find it either.
When her hyper-superficial boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson) volunteers her and a shy colleague, Arnau, to accompany him on an investigative road trip, she doesn’t take the assignment seriously at first. None of them do. Their mission is to track down a man who placed a newspaper ad in which he claims the ability to travel back in time. He is seeking a cohort, but leaves no contact information other than a P.O. box located in a small town on the Washington coast. Conveniently, it’s the same town in which Jeff’s old high school flame currently resides.
When they find the man from the ad, he is a predictably eccentric fellow named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who is immediately suspicious of Jeff’s motives. Fortunately, Darius and Arno stayed out of sight, so the guys nominate “the pretty girl” to go under cover and make Kenneth believe that she is answering his ad in earnest. Darius begins “training” with Kenneth, learning all the skills that he deems essential for time travel. Kenneth is sweet and intense so it often seems like he may be telling the truth about his abilities. He certainly believes what he’s saying. Either way, Kenneth clearly has some wrongs in his past that he is desperate to make right. Darius certainly wouldn’t mind being able to go back and prevent her mother’s death.
Despite his volatile temper and paranoia, Kenneth soon softens to Darius, and she to him. Meanwhile, Jeff learns that true happiness has very little to do with appearance and Arnau learns to be a man.
The filmmakers keep us guessing till the end about whether Kenneth is just a charming lunatic or the real deal. But the heart of the story lies within Darius and Kenneth’s relationship. These are two broken people who somehow fit together perfectly, despite the fact that they don’t seem to fit anywhere else. That makes it sound like a sapfest, and I suppose it could have been, but Plaza and Duplass bring such a sincerity and affability to their roles that you would have to be a total a*****e not to root for them. Don’t be that guy.