A small movie with a big heart, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a sci-fi-tinged oddball comedy about love as the ultimate risky adventure. In the hands of scribe Derek Connolly and helmer Colin Trevorrow, both making a fine feature debut, a kooky premise about a loner who places a classified ad for a time-travel partner develops into an endearingly scrappy and romantic romp that serves up some nice soul-searching moments alongside a steady stream of laughs. Theatrical success is far from guaranteed for this modest charmer, but good word of mouth could elevate its smallscreen prospects.
A deadpan prologue introducing sarcastic, mildly disaffected college grad Darius (Aubrey Plaza) initially warns of quirky affectation, but Connolly’s script maintains a mercifully fast and funny rhythm as it shoves Darius into a Seattle magazine internship, then sends her out on assignment with perpetually horny slacker reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) and her nerdy fellow intern, Arnau (Karan Soni). Their mission: Head to scenic Ocean View, Wa., track down whoever placed the aforementioned ad and get the story behind his eccentric request.
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Their man turns out to be Kenneth (exec producer Mark Duplass), an affable if perpetually paranoid dude who’s dead serious about his determination to travel back in time, as well as his need for an equally committed partner (“Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed,” the ad states). When cocky Jeff’s attempts to befriend Kenneth backfire, the team sends in Darius, who, being something of an imaginative weirdo herself, knows exactly how to get on this guy’s wavelength. Which she does, far more than she herself expects.
While Darius and Kenneth commence weapons training and he fills her in on his secret quest, which involves going back in time to rescue the girl of his dreams, Jeff’s personal reasons for coming to Ocean View becomes apparent. A parallel thread involving his old flame (a lovely Jenica Bergere) at first seems a distraction from the main narrative but in fact provides an adroit thematic counterpoint, as the film becomes a touchingly earnest ode to the challenges and glories of pursuing love regardless of the setbacks it may have dealt you. If the film’s crazy conceit finally seems more sweetly amusing than brilliantly inspired, its emotional sincerity is never in doubt.
Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and Duplass make a winning pair, all the more so given the physically improbable match between the tall, goofy-looking Kenneth and the petite goth-girl-lite several years his junior. The rakishly appealing Johnson steals scenes left and right as a character who might well have been merely obnoxious, and he strikes up a hilarious wingman-novice rapport with Soni’s shy, sexually inexperienced intern.
Trevorrow evinces sharp comedic instincts, setting a brisk pace maintained by editors Franklin Peterson and Joe Landauer. Benjamin Kasulke’s widescreen cinematography takes excellent advantage of the gorgeous Pacific Northwest locations while often cleverly positioning Plaza, Johnson and Soni side-by-side within the frame. Without divulging too much about the pic’s unexpectedly exhilarating finale, it’s clear where most of the probably shoestring budget went, and it was worth every penny.