Editor’s note: With Safety Not Guaranteed beginning its limited release roll-out today, we thought to share our SXSW review again. This review was originally posted on March 14, 2012, and it’s much safer to read than anything you might find on Craigs List.
The want ad is simple. A partner is needed to travel backward in time. It will be dangerous, it will be an adventure, and their safety will not be guaranteed.
A magazine writer convinces his editor that there’s a goofy human interest story in the ad and gathers together two interns for a trip north to Seattle in the hopes of meeting the ad’s owner. What they discover is that not all time travel involves machines, portals or HG Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through modern day San Francisco. Sometimes all it needs are heads and hearts refusing to let go of the past.
Director Colin Trevorrow‘s feature debut is just as likely to make you laugh out loud as it is to make you tear up in hopeful anticipation. The concept of time travel is the catalyst for a story that examines the idea of returning to an earlier time in our lives when things were better and our futures were still bright. Or at least, that’s how we remember things.
Jeff (Jake Johnson) pitches the story idea on an apparent lark as he thinks some laughs can be found at the expense of a man who believes so seriously in time travel. His real reason for the trip though is to revisit an old flame who still holds a place in his heart and memory. Jeff brings two interns along for the ride, mostly so they can do the actual work, and chooses Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) for the job.
Darius is a bit of a loner who continually finds herself one degree of separation away from the rest of humanity. She doesn’t get them, and she doesn’t want to be gotten. Arnau is an incredibly bright college student lacking in self confidence and non-educational drive. The trio could hardly be more disparate, but the road trip and adventure that await them may just expose some common ground between them.
The fourth player here is the ad’s owner, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who is immediately suspicious of anyone and everyone and claims that federal agents are following his every move. Of course, he also claims to be just days away from finishing his time machine.
Darius goes undercover pretending to be interested in being Kenneth’s partner in time, and soon the duo are running through training exercises, burgling scientific labs and discovering they’re not alone in their dysfunction. But as they head towards launch day new troubles arise in the form of lies, revelations and editor deadlines.
There’s more to the story including the pair’s individual motivations for traveling back in time and Jeff’s regret-filled self awareness, but like the rest of the film it’s best discovered naturally as the story and characters lull you in with charm and near-perfect cast chemistry.
Performances are pleasing throughout with all three of the main leads contributing standout work. Johnson’s Jeff is lovably dickish, but he surprises with a display of real emotional conflict. Duplass brings some of the same charm he displayed in the subdued but wonderful True Adolescents to a character whose quirkiness is both endearing and potentially depressing.
As good as both of them are, the real highlight here is Plaza. She retains her perfectly deadpan delivery and attitude through many of the film’s funniest lines, but she also opens up her range to become a ridiculously appealing love interest. Watch her large, beautiful eyes as they they stare up at Duplass when he’s looking elsewhere, and you’ll see a woman falling in love.
Time travel is the hook here, but the story is fully invested in the travails of being human. It’s not about ‘will they or won’t they time travel?’ It’s bout finding the value in today. Safety Not Guaranteed is an incredibly funny and surprisingly touching film that you should definitely make time to see. You see what I did there? Don’t worry, the movie is even funnier.
The Upside: Wonderful performances across the board; fantastic chemistry between Plaza and Duplass; Johnson manages to find real emotion in his subplot
The Downside: Nothing comes to mind
On the Side: If you’re not watching Plaza in Parks & Rec and Johnson in New Girl then you need to go back in time and start watching from the beginning. Or just start now.