The deadpan funny comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” certainly has an intriguing premise. It could have squandered it and used it as a backdrop for an entirely different story (as the sci-fi indie “Another Earth” did). The film instead revels in it whole-heartedly and hooks us in. The result is an imaginative, unexpectedly wondrous journey.
The story starts with magazine intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza of TV’s “Parks & Recreation”), who is interviewing for a job — not well, mind you. She’s clearly unhappy with life in general, particularly her main gig — an unpaid intern at a Seattle magazine.
At an editorial meeting, the mag’s snarky editor asks for story pitches. Staff member Jeff (Jake Johnson) brings up that he saw a classified ad submitted by a local man seeking a companion for time travel. “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”
They naturally think the (assumed) man’s galaxy is one moon shy of normal. The editor likes the idea and sends Jeff to research the story in upstate Washington. He asks for two interns and is assigned the ever-reluctant Darius and bookish Arnau (Karan Soni), who seems to be joined at the hip to his laptop.
They arrive in the small, seaside community Ocean View, where Darius and Arnau scope out the P.O. box listed in the ad. Jeff, meanwhile has ulterior motives for wanting to do the story. It’s all an excuse for him to look up an old girlfriend he still has a crush on.
Eventually, Darius tracks down slacker grocery store clerk Kenneth (a perfect Mark Duplass), who at first denies placing the ad.
He’s weird. On edge. And he thinks he’s being constantly followed.
But slowly, Darius’ awkward charm wins him over, and he agrees to induct her into the “mission.” But not without some rigorous training: He teaches her martial arts moves, how to shoot a gun and what to do if they ever get separated while time traveling.
Along the way, they share stories of why they want to go back in time, and their views of the world — all while they outrun Kenneth’s perceived followers, and while Darius thinks she is just indulging him.
And this is when the film becomes charming and warm, even if we still can’t tell if Kenneth is crazy or if he really is building a time machine.
To make matters more complicated, Darius thinks she may be falling for Kenneth.
To reveal more would be a disservice. But screenwriter Derek Connolly (whose script won the Sundance Film Festival’s prestigious Waldo Salt screenwriting award) and first-time feature director Colin Trevorrow keep us guessing through some surprising twists. We begin to doubt our own thinking about Kenneth.
The film boasts a spot-on performance by Plaza, who becomes the heart and conscience of the film. Duplass is electric. Their interaction reveals the tenderness of the human condition.
Eventually, what we get is something completely unexpected. And that goes for the film’s ending, as well. It will leave you soaring.