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SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘Back to the Future’ Meets ‘Juno’ In Capricious ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’

SUNDANCE REVIEW: 'Back to the Future' Meets 'Juno' In Capricious 'Safety Not Guaranteed'

It’s probably unfair to describe “Safety Not Guaranteed” as “Back to the Future” by way of “Juno,” as it certainly sets the bar too high. But in terms of entertainment value and tone, the shoe fits. Colin Trevorrow’s good-natured romantic comedy takes a handful of characters facing familiar conundrums — loneliness, family problems, the desire to follow your passion no matter how absurd it may seem — and sustains them with solid performances and impeccable good vibes. It’s the rare case of endearing quirkiness.  

Derek Connolly’s screenplay takes as its starting point a famous advertisement placed by a man seeking a time traveling companion (“Safety not guaranteed” capped off the request), but there’s nothing truly science fiction about the plot. Instead, “Safety Not Guaranteed” follows Seattle magazine journalist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and his interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) as they investigate the peculiar Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who placed the ad.

Plaza takes center stage as a sad, confused college grad singled out to seduce Kenneth for the sake of the story, but drawn to his curious interest in a seemingly impossible task. Their unlikely courtship turns “Safety Not Guaranteed” into an allegorical romance that never overreaches, and only suffers from the half-formed character types surrounding its core relationship.

Kenneth’s brainy obsessiveness over time travel meets its match with Darius’ own neuroses, which go back to a traumatic experience in her youth. This honest connection clashes with the thin archetypes of everyone around it, particularly Jeff. While the alleged journalist uses the trip to chase down an old crush, Darius takes over and learns more about herself than her subject. Jeff is an underwritten part that belongs to a weaker movie, but the Darius/Kenneth relationship salvages the overall experience of “Safety Not Guaranteed” from a similar fate.

“I just expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up,” Darius says about her continuing problems with life. That’s probably the best approach for viewing “Safety Not Guaranteed,” which can be an entirely pleasing experience as long as you don’t ask it to deliver in any precise way. The finale thrusts new information into the picture in a manner that’s troublesome if you read into it in an empirical fashion, but it also takes the movie to a level of heightened payoff that validates the meandering trajectory. The title may cull from a ridiculous meme, but it also verbalizes the screenplay’s astute life philosophy.

Moving between Jeff’s experience with his own romantic problems and the time that Darius and Kenneth spend together, the script maintains likability without transcending its low key nature. The tension between its sunny pop qualities (a cheery soundtrack, dozens of transient one-liners) and the legitimate emotion expressed by its two leads results in a movie divided against itself, but never completely unappealing; Plaza’s frustrations remain wholly believable, as does her attraction to Kenneth. As Jeff puts it, “your weird mojo clicked with his weird mojo.” Likewise, the weird mojo of “Safety Not Guaranteed” clicks with its original premise.

Criticwire grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? The upbeat, capricious nature of “Safety” has Fox Searchlight written all over it, and the studio arm could certainly explore some innovative ways of getting it out there. However, other, smaller distributors may have better luck marketing the movie to an ancillary marketplace where its time-traveling romance description could help make it a popular choice. Either way, commercial prospects seem relatively high.

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