"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." This is the ad, originally appearing in a 1997 issue of Backwoods Homes Magazine, and brought to prominence when read by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, that became the inspiration for this little indie comedy directed by first timer Colin Trevorrow. Starring Mublecore maestro Mark Duplass as Kenneth, the writer of said ad (in reality, the ad was written as a joke by the magazine's editor), Safety Not Guaranteed is not about whether this borderline nutjob actually can travel through time (though we do get an answer to whether he can or cannot during the final fifteen minute frenzy of the film) so much as why he wants to, and even moreso, why we end up wanting him to.
Trevorrow infuses his film with a calming northwestern feel (shot in and around Seattle and Ocean Shores WA) and gives it what he has called a "Hal Asby look", and just allows the story to unfold in the least pretentious manner. And it is this story, and the performances within the story that make the film fly. Duplass' Kenneth, who is paranoid about government agents following him, actually does get stalked by a Seattle Magazine reporter and his two interns, one of which, Darius, a twentysomething slacker played with a witty nonchalance by Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation, manages to infiltrate herself into Kenneth's life. At first posing as someone who wants to go back in time with him, Darius slowly (or actually not so slowly) begins to not only believe that they can indeed go back, and wanting to, but also, of course falling for the off-kilter Kenneth. We also get a few subplots, one involving Jake Johnson's magazine reporter hooking up with his high school sweetheart, and this same said reporter trying to get his naive, nerdy intern laid, but these never really go much of anywhere, and only work to distract us from the main plot of Kenneth and Darius and their attempt at traveling through time.
The quirky, but not too quirky screenplay aside (and we all know how indie cinema likes to over do everything and outquirk each other), the film's heart and soul, so to speak, comes from Duplass and Plaza, and their strange interactions. Plaza, playing her usual pretty little slacker routine (which is not a dig, as I think she does a good job at such a routine) is at first a bewildered Gen Y nowhere girl, gliding through life with no seeming ambition, and no seeming way to achieve any. But through Duplass's lovable lunatic Kenneth, and the idea of time traveling, i.e. escaping her lost and lonely life, Plaza's Darius grows past this slacker mentality into something greater, and perhaps something more hopeful as well. And as for Duplass, his portrayal of a man who may or may not be completely insane, is one of the most subtly charming performances of the cinematic year, and it is through him that the film succeeds as well as it does. Half little boy lost and half determined mad scientist, Duplass gives the part his own weird sense of frat-slack style. And by the time the finale finally comes along (and it is not that long to wait as the film clocks in at a mere 86 minutes), we are all invariably rooting for his time machine to actually work. Whether it does or whether he is just a lovable crankcase with a flair for the dramatic, I will not divulge here, but we are certainly rooting for him to pull it off.