Lounging around the conference table at Seattle magazine, the editorial staff is prodded into making halfhearted pitches for feature stories. When Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) suggests a bizarre classified ad seeking a partner for time travel—“Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before”—the story gets the go-ahead. And Jeff gets two interns “to do the heavy lifting” (i.e., the actual work) and a travel budget. The interns are Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a depressed wallflower, and Arnau (Karan Sori), a clueless biology grad trying to round out his resume.
And so it begins: an eccentric yet sincere adventure into the fringe (the script was inspired by a real-life classified ad). The mismatched team sets out to find Kenneth (Mark Duplass) the time traveler, and interview him. First Jeff tries, and is shot down by the inventor, who isn’t quite the crackpot they were expecting. And then Darius is sent in (when all else fails, send in the pretty girl) and succeeds brilliantly. While Jeff pursues his own agenda, Darius infiltrates Kenneth’s project to travel to 2001, training with him and enticing him to drop his guard, to the point that they exchange life tragedies. Like everything else in this witty, wise and heartfelt film, their growing intimacy is handled with a minimum of fuss and a steady supply of comic insight.
The feature-film debut of director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly, Safety Not Guaranteed shows an astute understanding of two age groups, early twenties and late thirties, and how they interact. Jeff is one of those long-past-college adolescents so commercialized by Hollywood lately—except that he’s intelligent, and acts under a nagging awareness that it’s time to grow up. Which is why he, too, has a reason to reach into his past. Effervescently paced, the film casually dissolves the characters’ varying veneers of cynicism. Especially deft is Jeff’s tutelage of Arnau, who is trapped by his own timidity.
At the film’s heart is how Kenneth, a possibly genius naïf who is unself-consciously appealing rather than weird, is not used a comic fall guy, though his situation borders on hilarious. That is, until it becomes interesting, challenging the magazine team with the question “Is this guy for real?” TV comedians Duplass (The League) and Plaza (Parks and Recreation) make the transition to the big screen more assuredly than any other TV cast members of recent memory, while rising film comedian Johnson may be approaching character-actor stardom. And if the camera lingers a touch too lovingly on Plaza, she handles the close-ups with aplomb: notice the adoration in Darius’ eyes when she is finally given something serious to do.
Future-think is that the filmmakers will be going on to bigger and better things, but for the present, this unpredictable little film may outlast the big guns (and crashes and explosions) all summer long.