Magical Mystery Tour

“Safety Not Guaranteed,” the world’s first time travel/mumblecore hybrid, is a small fish in a sea of overproduced and underwritten summer blockbusters. It’s small in scale, but smarter than most. Or perhaps it’s the wise, old fisherman, using time travel as a hook to reel in audiences to an uncommonly pleasant but low-keyed affair. Either way, it’s quite a catch, especially for a mid-summer release. Its charm comes not from a high concept, but from an agile screenplay and heartbreaking turns from Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass. The film is based on an internet meme, perhaps another first, a newspaper classified ad in which an unidentified man asks for a willing partner to go back in time with him. “Must bring your own weapons,” he writes. “I have only done this once before.” Based on the outcome, you’d never believe that the writer (Derek Connolly) and director (Colin Trevorrow) have never done this before. This is their debut.

Plaza stars as Darius, an attractive but droll newspaper intern experiencing a quarter-life crisis. Her middle-aged boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson), decides to take her and another intern, Arnau (the deadpan Karan Soni), along to Washington State to pursue the author of the classified ad. To the annoyance of Darius and Arnau, Jeff uses the trip as an excuse to pursue his high school sweetheart, only to be disappointed that she, like him, has gotten older. Surprise!

When they do track down the ad’s author, Darius takes the initiative to see the story through. Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the thirty-something ad buyer, is offbeat, aloof, and unpredictable. Duplass plays him as a mad scientist stuck in adolescence. Signs of Kenneth’s instability (he always thinks he’s being followed) are countered with a genuine sweetness so that Duplass is able to establish a middle ground with the character. Is he delusional? Is he for real? What reference point would he have for time travel if he’s only done it once before? “My calibrations are flippin’ pinpoint,” he tells Darius.

What separates “Safety Not Guaranteed” from its summer competition is how well-drawn each character is. Jeff and Arnau have their own arcs and the narrative is stronger for including their individual experiences. In a weaker film, these players would serve as mere comic relief or recite expository dialogue. The storylines of Darius and Kenneth become intertwined in such a manner that keeps us guessing, but an amazing scene set to firelight and scored by Kenneth’s surprising musical ability conveys more about its characters than many films do in two hours.

Where the movie stumbles is in its third act. Without spoiling anything, I can reveal that, disappointingly, some of the characters get less than satisfying conclusions. One storyline in particular is abandoned without any resolution, and another is handled clumsily. The finale itself is abrupt, as if the filmmakers didn’t know where else to go, but a small coda gives the film some sense of finality.

Visually, the color palette is nothing extraordinary, but the camera is usually in the right place (an increasingly rare thing) and the production design is incredible for a mumblecore film. Independent cinema and high concepts don’t usually collide, but in this instance the entire cast and crew were on the same page. Time travel and all of its mechanical underpinnings are inherently elaborate, but “Safety Not Guaranteed” manages to keep things understated. The songs used throughout are accordingly low-key (some might use the word “hipster” to describe its target audience), but each one accents the scene it’s in without being overbearing.

Despite its sci-fi leanings, the film is a relatively delicate character piece with weirdness on its mind and in its heart. Thematically, it’s evocative of Lennon/McCartney’s “The Fool On The Hill,” and while the song isn’t used in the movie, both carry the same inherent sweetness and affection for outcasts. The third act might be disjointed, but it left me wanting more. Plaza and Duplass do great, believable work, and it’s a debut that both writer (Connolly) and director (Trevorrow) can proudly hang their hats on.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Studio: FilmDistrict
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenwriter: Derek Connolly
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Kristen Bell, Jenica Bergere, Jeff Garlin, Karan Soni, Lynn Shelton, Mary Lynn Rajskub
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)