Small and delightfully self-assured, Safety Not Guaranteed celebrates the idea of taking a chance and accepting the unexpected, in ways that are quietly funny. It opens Friday (6/8/12) in limited release.
Coming from first-timers Colin Trevorrow (director) and Derek Connolly (writer), the film is built on that hoariest of devices -- a lie that turns real. In this case, it's one told by Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza), an intern at a Seattle magazine who isn't really sure what she wants to do with her life.
But she finds herself volunteering to work with one of the magazine's reporters, Jeff (Jake Johnson), going with him and another intern (Karan Soni) to a small town outside Seattle. Their quarry: the man who placed a personal ad, seeking a companion to engage in time travel -- the ad's final line being "Safety not guaranteed."
But as they quickly discover, Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is the suspicious type: He's not only deeply involved in elaborately technical calculations about what he needs to travel through time. He's also paranoid that the government is tracking his movements. He may not be far off.
So Kenneth doesn't respond to the obviously skeptical Jeff. When Darius feigns interest, however, he falls for it -- no doubt because she's a cute girl who can operate on his wavelength.
Before she knows it, Darius is undergoing physical training to prepare for everything from guerrilla warfare to hand-to-hand combat. She also discovers that Kenneth only wants to travel back to a few years earlier in the 21st century, to correct a moment that cost him true love.
Which touches Darius unexpectedly. So even as she becomes serious about training to be Kenneth's time-bandit accomplice, she finds that the guise of undercover reporter forces her to become involved in his project in ways that surprise her. Which brings her back to the dilemma of the lie: Has she gone too far to admit it? What if he finds out?
The bigger question, of course, is about time travel -- and the fact that, in many ways, we already do it in our minds without realizing it. Indeed, Jeff, the main reporter on the story, essentially ignores Darius and her involvement with Kenneth because he's got his own agenda. This town is actually a place where his parents used to bring him on vacation -- and there's a former flame from his teens who still lives in the town. When he does track her down, he discovers how heady time travel can be.
The plot harbors enough twists to keep you watching and, perhaps, wondering. What carries the film along are the performances, particularly the exceptionally deadpan Plaza. Even expressing enthusiasm evinces a straight face, as she alternately snickers at and is enthralled by Duplass' wonderfully committed Kenneth.
Invest in the characters, then plug into their story. As potentially outlandish as Safety Not Guaranteed might seem, it's a film with heart that never insults your intelligence while finding ways to make a familiar-seeming story surprise you.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine