Safety Not Guaranteed could have been something special if someone had been able to rouse it. As it stands, this is one of those casual indies that aspires mostly to nonchalance.
That’s OK – one nice thing about independent film is that it’s not beholden to Hollywood-style pacing – but only to a point. As lovely as a few scenes are, as close as it is to working, the film mostly feels limp. It idles.
Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius, an aimless magazine intern assigned to help a reporter (Jake Johnson) track down a guy who took out a classified ad looking for a time-travel partner (“safety not guaranteed” is one of the ad’s phrases).
That guy, Kenneth, is the best thing about the film, played with a deadpan sincerity by Mark Duplass (also a writer and director, Duplass only has acting-producing duties here). Even when Kenneth is at his most ridiculous – in Rambo garb while training for his time-travel mission – Duplass never cracks a smile or lets a wink slip. Instead of going for easy laughs, he evokes pathos.
This especially helps when Darius goes undercover, applies to become Kenneth’s partner and begins to form a real friendship with him. Like the character Plaza plays on television’s “Parks and Recreation,” Darius is cynical and remote, but it’s Kenneth’s earnest authenticity that pries open other aspects of her personality. Plaza and Duplass have some wonderful moments together, including a quiet discussion about how hearing a song that is attached to a sweet memory can simultaneously make you feel good and “hollow.”
Unfortunately, the moments with the two leads are the only ones in the film that work, by a long shot. Jeff, the reporter played by Johnson, is a noxious presence, envisioned as a sexist jerk and never developed beyond that (despite a laborious subplot in which he tries to reconnect with a high-school flame). Arnau (Karan Soni), another intern on the trip, is little more than a collection of Indian/nerd stereotypes wrapped up in one lazy package. And whatever camera was used – IMDB.com suggests it was a Sony PMW-F3 – the end result looks like it was shot on an iPhone and smuggled out of Iran.
The grungy look isn’t simply an aesthetic problem. It connects back to my larger concern with the film: its visceral lack of ambition. This comes to a head during the chaotic climax, in which Darius’ identity is revealed, government agents get involved and we learn whether or not Kenneth is really capable of time travel. It’s a big moment, but sloppily handled, because Safety Not Guaranteed has been reluctant to commit to any sort of bigness. That’s too bad – small movies can swing for the fences too.