Although at this point there are way too many stories about quirky man-children and the women who love them, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is an oddly effective little charmer. A film that harkens back to the magical-realism adventures of the 1980s rather than the twee dollhouse making of the last decade, Colin Trevorrow’s tale of a trio of journalists who investigate a personals ad from an oddball requesting a partner in a time-travel experiment is far more grounded, genuine, and moving than its conceit suggests. At the same time, there’s little that’s especially new or original about “Safety Not Guaranteed,” but it ekes out a victory over so much of its indie-darling competition simply by following through on the ideas it introduces.
Aubrey Plaza (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) plays Darius, a recent college graduate who interns for a Seattle magazine and unhappily muses about her future. When one of her bosses, Jeff (Jake Johnson), proposes a feature about a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel experiments, she joins him and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), for a trip to Ocean View, WA, in search of its author. While Jeff quickly lets himself get distracted by a tryst with an ex-girlfriend, Darius tracks down their mystery man, a grocery store clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who discusses quantum physics and Schroedinger’s cat while restocking tomato soup. Assigned the responsibility of winning his confidence, Darius starts spending time with him in an effort to figure out if he’s playing an elaborate prank, or if he’s just crazy. But when some of Kenneth’s paranoid fantasies start coming true, and she simultaneously finds herself charmed by his single-minded sincerity, Darius is forced to choose whether to continue her ruse and complete the article, or abandon her responsibilities and help him make his seemingly fantastical plan a reality.
Although Duplass is too old for Plaza by a decade – and quite frankly, too old to be indulging in flights of fancy like the ones his character does in the film – as Kenneth he thankfully manages to avoid being too quirky or awkward for us to believe he could be real. Constantly dressed as if Marty McFly was his style icon and dispensing strategic information as if he watched too many spy movies, it’s actually that too-old edge that makes the character a more tragic and compelling figure, rather than a Napoleon Dynamite or Max Fischer knockoff who’s desperately in need of a reality check. And even more oddly, the disparity in Duplass’ and Plaza’s ages somehow works in favor of the story, as she is so constantly cynical and displeased with the world at the beginning of the story – strangely the “mature” one of the two – that his pie-in-the-sky obsession not only provides her with something fun to do, it challenges her advancing notion that adulthood is even more miserable than being a kid.
It’s hard not to be charmed by Plaza, a thoughtful deadpan performer who over the past few years has developed a strong, distinctive screen persona. But she unfortunately still basically runs at one speed as an actress – slightly too aware of being in a movie to fully convince us she’s in the moment – so it’s a refreshing sight to see her Darius’ glowering misanthrope transform into someone who could be swept along by the passion of another person’s pipe dream, regardless of how implausible it seems. Meanwhile, Duplass is focused and sincere as Kenneth, a sensitive adult still trying to escape the pain of an unhappy childhood, and manages never to give him the kind of nerdy tunnel vision that might turn off skeptics (or even just the socially well-adjusted).
Jake Johnson, on the other hand, is the film’s unexpected saving grace, an actor with real screen credibility but also miraculous comedic timing, and his trip down memory lane with his ex reinforces the idea that in one way or another, every person wants to relive the past, and not always with great success. After “Ceremony,” with this, TV’s “The New Girl” and the upcoming “21 Jump Street,” Johnson is poised to be one of those supporting players who’s simply not yet found his starring role, but in the meantime, his clear-eyed, character-driven observations of what’s going on continue to be invaluable, grounding contributions to each of his films.
Given the combination of a farfetched idea – the invention of time travel – and our cynical familiarity with the magic realism of movies about eccentric dreamers, it’s easy to dismiss Trevorrow’s as the derivative, grown-up version of one of Amblin’s lesser entries from the 1980s. But the director never winks at the audience, even when he’s acknowledging the unlikeliness of the story, and manages to construct a narrative with enough thematic and emotional resonance to make audiences not just like the characters, but care about them. And ultimately, it’s precisely in this full-swing approach that “Safety Not Guaranteed” has so many appreciable qualities: to indulge a character’s imagination is to let his fantasies go unchecked or uncommented upon, but Trevorrow takes a hard look at Kenneth’s ambitions, makes us understand the feelings behind them, and then finds a way to make them come true in a way that makes us feel like ours have as well. [B-]