How twee do you want your quirky indie romcom? If you’d like it to be not terribly twee but with a big helping of MacGruber-esque ironic denim, Safety Not Guaranteed is your quirky indie romcom. But just because I said MacGruber-esque don’t expect anything all that MacGruber-y. It’s just esque, in that it features lots of jokes about a guy who thinks he’s tougher and manlier than he really is and wears bad clothes and has a bad haircut. If it were MacGruber-y it would be FUNNY. Got that?
Anyway, Safety Not Guaranteed is based on a classified ad that became a viral internet sensation. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right - we are at the end of civilization. But in the meantime this ad isn’t the worst idea for a movie. Here’s the ad:
Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. You must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.
That’s intriguing. It’s crazy, but it’s compelling. And the fact that the guy has done this once before... well, despite your safety not being guaranteed it looks like the time travel thing is at least plausible. And so the film Safety Not Guaranteed decides to figure out what sort of a guy would place that ad, and why, and what his goal might be.
The vehicle for this exploration is Aubrey Plaza, who plays a depressed young woman who interns at Seattle Magazine. A smarmy journalist, played smarmily by Jake Johnson, decides this story would be good for a laugh... and also a good way for the magazine to pay for him to look up an old flame. Also along for the ride is a nerdy Indian kid whose character might be really offensive, but I’m not sure if we get upset about Indian stereotypes these days.
And the guy placing the ad? Indie movie royalty Mark Duplass. He’s a super likable guy, and he’s the best thing in the film. While the movie calls for him to be kind of a clueless stooge most of the time (before suddenly asking us to feel really bad about his dashed hopes and dreams), Duplass plays the role with some actual self-respect. He’s a great presence in any movie. And since this is a romcom, he’s totally handsome enough to make out with Aubrey Plaza, even if he is wearing a Canadian Tuxedo most of the movie.
What’s interesting is that the Duplass and Plaza A-story isn’t that good. It’s fine, but it’s just fine enough that, were you watching at home, you might get up to make a sandwich and never come back. The B-story, with Johnson finding out that his teen dream has grown up into the red-headed cougar played by Jenica Bergere, actually feels more emotionally honest and satisfying than the main plot. The main plot is all standard nerd wish-fulfillment - what if you got beat up for playing with Star Wars toys and were kind of a weirdo but a hot, funny girl liked you anyway? And maybe you’re even right about time travel - but the B-plot feels really adult. Johnson learns to grow up, and he doesn’t do it in cheesy, derivative ways.
On top of that his story actually has some really funny stuff with the Indian kid, played by Karan Soni. There’s sweetness there as Johnson learns to let go of his childish ways by helping this tightly wound kid discover his own. That’s a nice movie! I’d like to see that movie.
It isn’t that Safety Not Guaranteed is bad. It’s totally fine, especially if you like this kind of quirky indie comedy stuff whose sell-by date feels like about 2002. Plaza is also very good, and she brings a nice hint of reality to her usual snarky persona. And she and Duplass have fine chemistry. It’s just the brightly lit film has a script that feels one idea short of completion. Also, the movie’s tone makes the ending so blatantly obvious that getting to it felt sort of like a drag.
I will say this for the inoffensive, competently made Safety Not Guaranteed: it doesn’t make any easy and cheap Back to the Future references, and for that it has my gratitude.