“Safety Not Guaranteed” introduces us to its protagonist, Darius (Aubrey Plaza of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”) during a job interview for a barista position. She refuses to take the questions being asked of her seriously and is ultimately denied the position. We then watch as Darius refills toilet paper in the bathrooms at a hip Seattle magazine where she is an intern. We are supposed to feel sorry for her, but come on! She has a rad internship and stocking toilet paper really isn’t that bad. I wanted to shout at her, “get over yourself!” I understand what the film is trying to say, that it’s our attitude that dictates our perspective, but film after film says the same thing, and I really did not need to hear it again.
The story takes off when one of the writers at the magazine, Jeff (Jake Johnson of FOX’s “New Girl”), pitches a story idea that would bring him, and two interns of his choosing, to Ocean View, Wash. The story he wants to write is an investigation of a classified ad from someone seeking a partner in time travel. Jeff chooses Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni): the cynic and the nerd.
Once in Ocean View, Jeff makes it clear that he has no interest in the story, and that his only motivation in choosing the assignment is to reunite with an old flame from high school. Darius and Arnau set off to complete the story for him and quickly discover the identity of the person who placed the ad: the nerdy, spastic and 80’s attire-clad Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass (of FX’s “The League”).
Kenneth is an eccentric nutcase who claims to have built a functional time machine. He plans to travel back in time to complete a mission that “has to do with regret.” The rest of the film sees Darius falling in love with Kenneth, Jeff falling back in love with his old flame and Arnau being pressured to let go of his inhibitions and live in the present.
If it weren’t for the preposterousness of the film’s final scene, I would have believed that the writers were attempting to illuminate the importance of living in the moment and appreciating our current situations. However, the ending makes this message an impossibility. (Audience members will understand this immediately upon watching the movie.)
Darius claims to be the person who “always expects the worst,” constantly finding herself in dreadful situations, but everything about her life suggests otherwise. She never once expects the worst throughout the film, but rather repeatedly displays the actions of a naive optimist. Maybe that’s the point, but the way Darius is played by Plaza suggests otherwise. She’s all too eager to accept that Kenneth is actually not crazy and might be telling the truth about his ability to travel back in time. The filmmakers want us to believe that Darius was once a half-empty cynic and that, because of Kenneth’s unashamed optimism, has somehow transformed into someone willing to believe that anything (including time travel) is possible. However, that’s an absurd notion given what we’re shown about Plaza’s character.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” begs the audience to take its story seriously, but the film fails to follow its own advice throughout the picture. It asks us to overlook the insanity of one of its main characters, pleading with us not to laugh at him while repeatedly making him the punch line to many of the film’s jokes. The director, Colin Trevorrow, means well enough, but he cannot help himself from eliciting a cheap laugh at the expense of the characters he has, only moments before, asked us to care about. I was confused the whole time: is the audience supposed to laugh at these people, feel sorry for them or somehow find inspiration in them?
However, there are several moments here where, despite my distaste for the movie, I found myself audibly laughing. The robbery carried out by Kenneth in order to acquire much needed lasers stands out most prominently.
I can see why so many people like this movie: it is hilarious after all, but there are too many inconsistencies present to allow for anything other than a superficially enjoyable experience. I was too often questioning the sincerity of the filmmakers to be able to lose myself in the picture, and this proved to leave me ultimately feeling ripped off.
NOTE: “Safety Not Guaranteed” showed this past weekend at the Little Theatre, in association with the Western Film Society. To learn more, click here.