[This review was originally published as part of our SXSW coverage. It is being re-posted to coincide with its wider release. For more on Safety Not Guaranteed, read my interviews with Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow (writer and director), and Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass.]
I went into Safety Not Guaranteed thinking it'd be an awesome time-travel comedy. Wow, was I completely off. What it ultimately ended up being was a heartfelt comedy full of legitimate laughs and character. I know, spoiling how I felt about the film in this introduction isn't the usual style I use to write my reviews, but I just can't contain myself from expressing just how much I really liked Safety Not Guaranteed.
After discovering a newspaper wanted ad looking for a companion to time travel with, a magazine reporter, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), chooses two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), to accompany him to track and write a feature on the person that posted the ad. However, upon meeting Kenneth (Mark Duplass), Jeff realizes the job might be tougher than it actually is. Darius then steps up to continue the feature, leaving Jeff and Arnau to accomplish their own objectives.
Almost from the beginning of the film, the film's direction establishes itself not as a film about time travel, but of one about relationships of all types, leaving the time travel aspects as a minor plot point in a film that aims for something more. Honestly, the movement away from the time travel ends up making the film feel more whole. Yes, the film is driven by Darius' adventure to discover what motivates Kenneth to accomplish his goal to go back in time, but in saying that, it also illuminates just how character-driven the film is. The subplot involving Kenneth's attempt to reconnect with an old girlfriend and his push to help Arnau become a man don't quite carry the same weight, yet they're full of their own special moments that keep it from becoming an afterthought when compared to the main plot.
Given that Safety Not Guaranteed is Plaza's first lead role, I was worried that she'd be limited to this archetypal character that she's unfortunately been typecast into the past few years. However, screenwriter Derek Connolly wrote Darius specifically for Plaza, allowing her to tap into the deadpan, sarcastic character she's known for playing, but to also explore more character depth that haven't been allowed to her in her previous roles. She's at her A-game with her comedic delivery (as if this comes as a surprise to anybody that knows her talent), but she also shows a softer side that is sympathetic and separate from the sarcastic persona.
Paired along with Duplass, the two have chemistry that easily feeds off of the other's performance. There are moments where Kenneth could fall into this ubergeek, Napoleon Dynamite-esque character, but Duplass is able to save him from devolving into that territory by bringing an empathetic personality to Kenneth. Despite his quirks and eccentricities, you can't help but hope Kenneth is successful. He's just an honest and noble character.
I came into SXSW highly anticipating Safety Not Guaranteed and I didn't leave the theater disappointed. Anchored by a very strong performance by Plaza that will hopefully be earmarked as her breakout role, Safety Not Guaranteed is able to find that perfect mix between comedy and heartfelt character relationships.
Allistair Pinsof: As Bill and Ted proved long ago, time travel and comedy go hand-in-hand. Then Hot Tub Time Machine proved that theory wrong. Somewhere between the two lies Safety Not Guaranteed, though it centers on a possible crazy person's belief in time travel rather than the act itself. Parks and Recreations' Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and Jake M. Johnson round-out a strong cast of actors that can deliver humor without sacrificing the darker themes of the film. It may be the first good movie based on an internet meme. -- 74, Good