“Do you have no concept of time?” – Dr. Emmett Brown

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by Colin Trevorrow (FilmDistrict)

Just as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is probably the best film you’ll ever see about Abe Lincoln hunting vampires, Colin Trevorrow’s feature debut, Safety Not Guaranteed, is probably the cutest indie romantic-comedy about time travel. And despite playing it considerably safer than the title suggests, the premiere script of Derek Connolly, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, is the basis for an oddly fresh film, making it one of the year’s more pleasant theater experiences.

Mark Duplass (who co-produced the film, along with his brother, Jay) plays a man named Kenneth Calloway. He has just submitted a classified ad to a local newspaper. It reads in the following way – “Wanted: Somebody 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. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”

In a grand quest to prove the investigative value of print journalism (not exactly, but you catch my drift), magazine intern Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) and a similarly positioned, geeky Indian guy named Arnau (Karan Soni) are brought along by writer Jeff Schwensen (Jake M. Johnson) to do an article about Kenneth, only to find that Jeff has an agenda of his own. Meanwhile, Darius pretends to respond to Kenneth’s article, not only becoming his faux partner, but also one she comes to connect with on a far deeper level.

Darius has lost her mother at an early age, was never able to fit in as a teenage student, and now sees little promise in her future. Kenneth has had similar experiences, but with a simple twist. He can time travel. Or can he? In addition, is he mentally disturbed, or just plain weird? There is consistent joy in seeing this relationship develop, as two people who feel isolated from society come to acknowledge their regrets together, and discuss reversing them. Much is also found in the youthful abilities of Aubrey Plaza (who appears on TV’s Parks and Recreation) and Karan Soni, along with the hilarious performance of Jake M. Jonhson as the party-centric Jeff. And of course, Duplass does a terrific job as Kenneth, a character who is sympathetic, funny, and certainly worth believing in.

Safety Not Guaranteed, while being the indie flick that every hipster in town will want to see, is also a very effective examination of sex and relationships, the chances that pass us by, time that slips away, regrets that are unfulfillable, and the opportunities that are presently given to us. This is a film made by people just now breaking into the mainstream movie business, and it just goes to show that the less-experienced often have more wisdom than veterans would like to admit. Despite these words of praise, encapsulated by nice ideas about what it means to love and live for today, the movie is never as narratively slick as it would like to be.

Often feeling like a college thesis film, Connolly’s script features dialogue that is ever so familiar to viewers of ironic plays upon genre, yet still prompts laughter on a majority of these occasions. The characters also feel reminiscent of something we have seen not too long ago, yet it is quite clear that they have been articulated just as Connolly wanted them to be, and as his story progresses, it is difficult not to empathize with each, and enjoy their presence onscreen.

Meanwhile, the familiar elements that the film satirizes (martial arts training, “government agents,” etc.), come across much like the rest of Safety Not Guaranteed; they always feel a bit artificial, yet are usually worthy of our quiet laughter as the film moves along at a thoroughly entertaining clip. Colin Trevorrow also does wonderfully solid work behind the camera, despite how the polished, digital cinematography melds awkwardly with the predictable eccentricities of Connolly’s screenplay. Luckily, the two jive together well enough to find the heart of Safety Not Guaranteed, which beats just as strong as the satisfyingly compiled structure of Connolly’s narrative.

Although this clever presentation may make it difficult for one to remain unsatisfied, the screenplay is never quite as dangerous as it could’ve been. This is 75% romantic-comedy and 25% science-fiction, and it doesn’t take long to realize how heartfelt and intelligent the film actually is. Based on a real classified ad, we mentally connect these outrageous events to reality, which makes the overall package even funnier. And most of the time, this is exactly where the film wants to be.

Rarely will you not have a smile on your face, and when exposed to such a perfect blend of one-liners and situational comedy, it is likely that you will find some moments hilarious. But as the film begins to introduce more time travel elements, it never truly goes down a path that makes them seem well-explored. There was an opportunity here to utilize a more complex narrative in order to match the intellectual with the emotional, or even accentuate the latter. To some extent, this is accomplished (we are even teased throughout a sufficiently unpredictable third act), but would have been more effective had the filmmakers moved along a zanier tangent.

This is no Primer, the narrative genius of Shane Carruth’s twisted piece of sci-fi making it the king of independent time travel films. Safety Not Guaranteed, while being a film about time travel, couldn’t have moved in a further direction. It is a film that uses time travel to proclaim the importance of what is occurring right now in these characters’ lives – what they have lost, what they hope to gain, the possibility for companionship, and the desire to live fulfilling lives. It’s a sweet chance to see budding talent at work, hopefully by those who will one day make more cutting-edge fare. In the present, it’s charming, weird, thought-provoking, low-key, and lovely. I see myself revisiting it in the near future. For others, perhaps those who have felt as betrayed by life as Darius or Kenneth, it may even be something worth loving.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5

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