Good news for journalists: If Safety Not Guaranteed (FilmDistrict), the directorial debut of screenwriter Colin Trevorrow, is to be believed, there are still local print magazines with the resources to send three employees on a multiday out-of-town trip to report a mildly intriguing human-interest story. Such is the enviable assignment of Jeff (Jake Johnson), a writer for Seattle magazine, who pitches his Type-A editor (Mary Lynn Rajskub) an investigative piece on a puzzling classified ad that reads as follows:
WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91, Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.
That exact ad ran in the survivalist magazine Backwoods Home in the mid-‘90s, and later found its way onto the Internet, where it bounced around for years, giving rise to jokes, songs, and parodies. When Derek Connolly, Trevorrow’s longtime writing partner and fellow former intern at Saturday Night Live, came upon the ad in 2007, he began to envision the characters and story for a movie based on it: What kind of person would place a classified ad for a time-travel partner, and what kind of person might answer it? The resulting film is a slight, wistful comedy that, at least up to the ambitious but unsatisfying final scenes, combines sci-fi and rom-com to pleasing effect.
Because Seattle magazine’s largesse knows no bounds, Jeff is accompanied on his reporting trip by not one but two interns. Mopey Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a recent college graduate who lives with her father (Jeff Garlin), is still mired in grief and guilt years after losing her mother in a car accident. Uptight, virginal Arnau (Karan Soni) is still in college and looking to bulk up his résumé. After the threesome arrives in the sleepy beach community of Ocean View, it becomes clear that the hedonistic Jeff is less interested in reporting the story than in hooking up with an old flame (Jenica Bergere) and finding a way to get Arnau laid. So Darius takes over as lead reporter, tracking down the ad’s author, Kenneth (Mark Duplass) and posing as a respondent to his ad.
Kenneth, a sweet but emotionally unstable loner, spends his days stocking shelves at a supermarket and his off hours training for his demented mission on homemade obstacle courses. He’s also not above breaking into science labs to steal high-tech equipment for his mysterious time-traveling contraption (which he insists is for real, even though he won’t let Darius see it). Over the course of the next few days, Kenneth slowly grows to trust Darius, even letting her ride shotgun on one of his equipment heists. As the day of their planned trip into the past approaches, these two damaged oddballs begin to fall for each other—but does their love have any future, given that she’s lying to him about her motives for getting close and he is, quite possibly, certifiably insane?
Connolly and Trevorrow are on to something in their idea of using time travel as a metaphor for other, less literal forms of voyaging back into the past. Jeff can’t stop idealizing his high-school relationship and mournfully reminding Arnau that he won’t be 21 forever. Darius can’t stop tormenting herself with guilt over her final, unloving phone conversation with her mother. And Kenneth is so tormented by regrets about his past that it’s only in the film’s final minutes that we find out just what it is that really made him want to build that machine. I was onboard with the gentle charm of Safety Not Guaranteed until these last few scenes, when the genuine trauma suffered by these characters— especially Kenneth, whose paranoia and isolationism seem like symptoms of real mental illness—gets glossed over in an unconvincingly Spielbergian happy ending. Even the appealing chemistry between grizzly man Duplass and goth-girl Plaza (in the film’s best scene, he serenades her by a campfire with a song played on the zither) wasn’t quite enough to persuade me that their relationship wouldn’t end up in restraining orders and tears.