“Quirky” is one of those overused words that can damn with faint praise, especially when paired with “indie movie.”
To call the endearing “Safety Not Guaranteed” quirky, however, is an honest attempt to convey in a single word this indie dramedy’s many beguilements. Simultaneously loose-jointed and carefully constructed, it’s a heartfelt charmer about an eccentric guy planning to time-travel.
Early on, Jeff (Jake Johnson of TV’s “The New Girl”), a seasoned reporter at Seattle magazine, suggests to his dictatorial editor (Mary Lynn Rajskub, in an amusing cameo) that he track down the author of a classified ad which reads: “WANTED: Someone 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. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
Jeff drafts two interns, sad sack Darius (Aubrey Plaza, of TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) and geeky Arnau (Karan Soni), to accompany him to the small Washington coastal town listed alongside a P.O. box in the ad. (Jeff’s real reason for pitching the story is that he hopes to hook up with an old high school girlfriend who lives in the town.)
The trio quickly learns that the ad was placed by Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a grocery store clerk. He is building a time-travel machine in his garage. Darius befriends him in the guise of being a would-be time traveler and wins Kenneth’s trust. As she probes Kenneth’s motives for wanting to go back in time, she finds herself drawn for reasons of her own to wishing that his plans were reality and that she might accompany him.
As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the title refers not so much to a possible trip through time as to the human heart and relationships. When one offers one’s heart, nothing’s guaranteed, but not even to try means a life barely lived.
“Safety Not Guaranteed,” the first feature film directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Derek Connolly, works because it never pushes too hard, making its ending even more magical. Its characters are quirky, but never outlandishly so. Their behavior is amusing, but never strains credulity.
It helps that the cast is so engaging. Plaza, with her Morticia Addams looks and offbeat timing, is a gifted comic actress. Her Darius is an under-confident wallflower just waiting for a reason to bloom. Duplass (also known as the co-director with his brother Jay of “Cyrus”) is equally appealing as Kenneth, a sweetheart of a guy who’s most definitely tuned to a different drummer.
I don’t guarantee that everyone will like “Safety Not Guaranteed.” It’s neither slick nor action-filled, though it does include a robbery and a couple of drolly small-town car chases. But if you like your movies a little off-center, sweetly comic and with heart (but without being saccharine), this one’s for you.