It's hard to deny that Safety Not Guaranteed is one of those overly precious, adorably peculiar independent films with which we were barraged in the early aughts. It feels a little dated in its superfluous earnestness and single-minded quirk, like we were all blissfully free of the Garden State phenomenon only to have director Colin Trevorrow yank us back in. And yet, something about Safety Not Guaranteed sticks the landing. Something feels a little more honest and a little more substantial than the twee dross to which it will be inevitably likened. Two somethings, actually: authentic characters and an unabashed sense of humor.
In 1997, a classified ad was really published in Backwoods Home Magazine: "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." Turns out the thing was a joke, but the ad took on a viral intensity and swept the Internet. Writer Derek Connolly created a story about this non-story: three employees at a magazine travel on assignment to get the scoop on the writer of the ad.
Jake M. Johnson plays Jeff, a sleazebag full-time employee of the magazine. Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a cynical intern and our protagonist. Karan Soni is Arnau, another intern, shy and nerdy. And Mark Duplass plays Kenneth, the writer of the ad, who's all baffling machismo and rigidity.
The film does something interesting and somewhat overt with the three characters who work at the magazine, all of whom have different reasons for their quest. Jeff uses the trip as a magazine-funded visit to his high school flame, now a hot hairdresser who bakes and gives killer back massages (a terrific Jenica Bergere). Jeff can't surrender the past, a time when he was a stud banging the hottest girl in school. He's sweetly invested in giving a good time to Arnau, a perma-virgin who is entirely miserable with the lackluster present to which he's chained. And Darius is suffering a quarter-life crisis, unaware of what her future holds and frankly terrified of post-college providence in a world that has very little use for magazine interns. Any one of these three could do with a solid time-traveling session.
All of the performances are really good, giving weight to the characters who all legitimately make sense as something more than caricatures. Mark Duplass is unsurprisingly the strongest actor in the ensemble, offering an air of mystery to Kenneth, tempting us (and Darius) to believe that, with all of his silly masculinity and gravitas, maybe he has time-traveled before. Aubrey Plaza is great in almost the exact way she's great as April in Parks and Recreation, so while I enjoyed her performance very much, I can't wait until she does something brand new. I'd like to see her do more--she's honest and vulnerable at times in Safety Not Guaranteed, but she and/or the script rely too heavily on that bone-dry defense mechanism that we're all very accustomed to seeing from Plaza.
Johnson and Soni are frankly wonderful in their storylines. Johnson gives a lovely humanity to Jeff's smug scumbag facade, offering a poignant desperation to his attempt to hang on to a time when he was cool and to reconnect with someone during a very lonely point in his life. Soni turns Arnau from nerdy, virginal Indian stereotype to something a little more consequential through rueful self-deprecation and a surprising bravery when push comes to shove. Jeff and Arnau's unlikely friendship is probably my favorite part of the film.
The ending of the movie could go either way - in fact, it feels like there's almost definitely an alternate ending out there. Very little in the film surprises, including even the surprise twists, but Safety Not Guaranteed is surprising in that it's actually really funny. I laughed loud and hard at several jokes, and that's not something that films of this nature often contribute. While ultimately the quirky preciousness of the movie isn't my usual bag, cracking up at honest characters making recognizable mistakes is. Safety Not Guaranteed offers that in spades.