Time travel is a slippery slope. First you go back to the future to save your parents, but then you end up initiating the butterfly effect all the way to the eternal sunshine of your spotless mind. But the chance to go back and fix your mistakes has a powerful allure to it, one whose drama makes for good film.
The latest movie to take advantage of this timeless trope is Safety Not Guaranteed, the first major feature for director Colin Trevorrow. However, instead of going for the wham, bam, Terra Nova jamboree—changing history or skipping around eons—Safety instead focuses on the smaller moments, and is better for it.
Based on a true classified ad, Safety’s leads investigate a call for a partner to go back in time. The ad is vague, but intriguing, and after a pitch meeting at Seattle’s city magazine a ragtag team of editors and interns sets out to uncover the truth. Aubrey Plaza, she of the snark and apathy on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, gets a starring role here as Darius, a snarky and not-as-apathetic intern. Along with her is writer Jeff (played by New Girl’s Jake Johnson), and fellow intern Arnau, the obligatory shy one. With the editor’s blessing, this crew pursues a human interest story that slowly uncovers one interesting human: Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the author of the time travel ad.
As Darius slowly gets in his good graces, proving her worth as a “partner in time”, the motives of Kenneth and his reasoning for developing a time machine are unearthed. Meanwhile, Jeff uses the expedition to go after an old flame and teach Arnell how to embrace life. But for both character’s missions, the past may not burn as bright in reality as it does in their heads. The film loves to mesh these personalities together, and the result is not unlike Johnson’s New Girl: moments of fun and discovery abound, but the whole thing is underscored by a sense of realism about their situations and regret for the past.
Which is why the last quarter of the movie—especially the ending—threw me for an infinite loop. As I said, the movie’s strengths are in the small moments, and the nature of late plot developments seem too big. The scope pulls back ever so slightly, until it springs ahead in the last few minutes. It’s not disappointing, per se, just jarring…
Luckily the rest of the movie is enjoyable enough, and the tag team performances by Plaza and Johnson prove their ability to be more than supporting sitcom darlings. Your safety may not be guaranteed, but your amusement sure can be.
Safety Not Guaranteed expands to select theaters across the country throughout the month.
Review by Mark Ziemer