Safety Not Guaranteed is a quirky little independent movie that mixes humor and humanity with an interesting premise and manages to get the balance right. The story works so well that I brushed aside the shaky parts of the story and embraced the film without reservation (after a few days to reflect, I'll do some minor carping later).
It begins with a classified ad reading, WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before. At Seattle Monthly, apparently the only publication in America not financially slammed by the print journalism crash, a smarmy writer named Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) is assigned to investigate the intriguing ad, with interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Sole) selected to assist him.
In the small town where the ad originated, we learn that Jeff's true motive for pursuing the story is that he wants to reunite with a old girlfriend who lives in the town. We also learn that the author of the ad is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a jittery grocery store clerk who is dead serious about his mission.
Time to pause and pay homage to the two lead actors. Aubrey Plaza is best known for her role as the eye-rolling, sardonic April in Parks and Recreation, the great TV comedy that most of you don't watch. Mark Duplass makes movies with his brother, Jay, and is known for his work in numerous indie films (The Puffy Chair, Humpday, the current Darling Companion and the upcoming Your Sister's Sister) where he generally plays the most likable guy in the film. Plaza starts off here much like her TV character, but gets to stretch and show more depth. Duplass gets to be obsessive and possibly dangerous. Their scenes together begin nicely and get stronger as the film rolls on.
While Plaza and Duplass make magic in the story, Jeff pursues his ex and decides to help virginal intern Arnau get laid in the story. Jake Johnson, who reminds me of a seedy relative of Mark Ruffalo, effectively plays an aggressive, socially inept know-it-all, while Karan Sole does what he can as a stereotypical fretful nerd. The men have some funny moments (watch the edges of the scenes, some of the best laughs are there) and Jeff's attempts to pull his ex into his nostalgic romantic world mirror Kenneth's efforts to physically travel into the past with Darius. Is the mirroring too obvious? I didn't object.
The final scene of the film will likely trigger some discussions on the drive home. I found it surprising and took it as a symbol of what can happen when ... sorry, can't say more without spoiling the end. Suffice to state that the modest Safety Not Guaranteed is a treat that drew me in and held me tight. I hope its unassuming charm and poignancy works for you too.