Safety Not Guaranteed is that most wonderful kind of comedy, one where the laughs are big but the heart is even bigger. It wrestles with complex and genuine human emotions, dives deep into the psychology of one of science fiction’s most fascinating concepts, and creates warm, memorable, three-dimensional characters worth investing oneself in. That last part is perhaps the film’s most stunning accomplishment, for Safety Not Guaranteed marks one of the only times I have actively fallen in love with a film character. Her name is Darius, she’s played by the supremely talented Aubrey Plaza, and I’m head over heels for her because she’s one of the few film characters I feel I can honestly relate to.
Why? Let me put it this way. What would most people do if they came across a classified ad with the following text: “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.” Most people would dismiss it as a joke, possibly chuckle, and move on with their lives. Some might be curious, but only to discover what is wrong with the person who wrote it. A standard piece of mainstream storytelling, I suspect, would concern itself with this sort of reader, the ‘normal’ person unaffected by what they perceive as the ‘fringe.’
Safety Not Guaranteed is not about these sorts of people, but the outcasts who would naturally find fascination in an offer of true escapism. The sort of person whose first thought when reading the ad would not be an automatic “that can’t be real,” but a subconscious exclamation of “by God, COULD that be real?” I am that sort of person, and unashamed to admit it. Plaza’s character is that sort of person. I feel as though we were made for each other, though of course, we were not. The film’s appeal lies in and depends on a profound empathy with the characters, and were I the only one in the theatre to possess such a connection with Darius, my fellow audience members would not have so vocally enjoyed the experience from start to finish.
When Darius comes across the ad, she’s in a staff meeting at the magazine she interns for. They are brainstorming stories, and Jeff, a writer, thinks this obscure classified ad could make for an intriguing piece of investigative journalism. Darius immediately volunteers to help him with the story, and when it turns out the writer of the ad truly does believe the words he published, it’s Darius who’s tasked with getting close to the subject – a disheveled man named Kenneth – and learning more.
From there, the core story is one you’re familiar with: Darius quickly starts accepting Kenneth’s sincerity, and as they bond, the two discover that they understand each other more than anyone else in their lives. As Darius comes to believe in Kenneth’s time-travel plan, those around her continue to lack faith and jeopardize what Kenneth is up to. Writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow do not reinvent the wheel when it comes to the progression of this basic archetypical story, nor do they need to, for the execution is so sharp that every beat rings true.
As in the best of these stories, the question of whether or not Kenneth is telling the truth is irrelevant, and is not the focus of the work. The film is instead an insightful dissection of what Kenneth seems to believe, and the story feels positively revelatory because it understands the psychology behind time travel’s allure as well or better than any story I have ever encountered.
Time travel is, after all, escapism incarnate. An escape not only from our surroundings and circumstances, but from everything we have ever known. The desire to daydream about – or, in Kenneth’s case, act upon – such pure escapism can only come from deep emotional scars, ones that make us want to flee. After all, no one dreams of travelling through time to explore a dark place, but to find a time better than one’s own status quo.
Thus, the film’s characters are appropriately damaged. Kenneth keeps his motivations tightly hidden, but when finally revealed, it is clear he has gone to such lengths because he cannot understand how to live in a present where he must come to terms with mistakes of the past. It is a relatable feeling, albeit blown to a greater degree. We all carry shame and regret in our hearts, some more than others, and when those emotions surface, who among us wouldn’t want to build a time machine and repair our lives?
But Darius, for me at least, feels like the true touchstone character, for her damage and regret is less overt and therefore more palpable. She’s probably depressed, at least a little bit; she never quite fits in with those around her; she doesn’t like people her own age, etc. She is someone who feels profoundly out of place with the time she lives in, and that creates a strong subconscious allure towards the concept of time travel. Watching Darius helped me understand my own lifelong fascination with the subject; describing the character is, in many ways, like writing my own biography, so analyzing her reactions and motivations proved not just cathartic, but staggeringly insightful into my own existence.
That’s a large connection I have to the character and film that many viewers will, of course, lack, but even if you are not me, these characters still speak directly and profoundly to an audience often ignored in filmmaking: Those who hold an unshakable cynicism about our world, due to past experience or less accessible feelings, and therefore possess an itching desire to escape. There is tremendous authenticity and passion imbued in the writing, direction, and performance, so much so that even though Safety Not Guaranteed functions spectacularly as a comedy, many viewers will no doubt respond most strongly to the character drama and budding romance.
Plaza’s role in making the film click cannot be overstated. She gives a truly brilliant performance, one that makes use of all her beloved off-beat affectations showcased on works like Parks and Recreation while going so much deeper in showing where those ticks come from. Darius isn’t just one of my new favorite film characters because I relate to her, but because Plaza possesses every trait a performer could wish to have, flawlessly illustrating the humor, pathos, and mindset of the character in every scene. Plaza makes it all look so supremely natural that many, I worry, will overlook what a tremendous job she’s truly doing.
Mark Duplass isn’t far behind as Kenneth. He’s tasked with crafting a character who is equal parts endearing and mysterious, and he pulls it off at every turn, making us care for Kenneth long before we know all his secrets. Duplass and Plaza have wonderful chemistry, the scenes they share standing among the best pieces of cinema I’ve encountered this year.
The film is undeniably less compelling when it shifts focus to a very prominent B-story involving the magazine writer Jeff, played by Jake Johnson, and Darius’ fellow intern Arnau, played by Karan Soni. There’s no doubt that these are both fantastic, vivid characters brought to life by excellent comedic performances, but Jeff and Arnau’s exploits are so detached from the main narrative that it inevitably feels a bit anticlimactic whenever the film shifts focus. That being said, I can forgive the structural issues since there’s a poignant thematic thread running through this subplot that adds many essential shadings to the film’s message.
Jeff has decided to pursue a high school flame, and is disturbed to see how she’s aged, while Arnau is a ‘geek’ who, in Jeff’s eyes, has never really ‘lived.’ In short, both characters are very much concerned with the passage of time and what it has done – or will do – to them. Through these characters, Connolly and Trevorrow explore what time itself means to people on a day-to-day basis. Time’s relentless march affects all of us in ways we are often too self-obsessed to understand, and as Jeff, Arnau, and the audience learn this, the time-travel A-story grows in power.
I have spent the majority of this review analyzing the film’s dramatic subtext, but make no mistake: Safety Not Guaranteed is an extremely funny comedy. Riotously so, at times. It is simply easier to scrutinize dramatic function than it is to explain how something as ethereal and subjective as comedy works, so my preference as a writer always tilts towards the former. But the film is funny for admirably simple reasons: It features strongly defined characters, devises scenarios where they can be organically amusing, and blesses them all with sharp writing. Cheap or even outright gags are not part of the equation. Safety Not Guaranteed does not overtly try to earn laughs; it simply does, and that subdued naturalism is part of the fun.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a collection of nearly everything I frequent the movies for: wonderful characters, relaxed humor, and an insightful story with substance I can ponder long after exiting the auditorium. It engaged my heart and imagination in equal measure, and taking this journey with a large, enthusiastic audience created one of my most treasured theatrical experiences. This is one of the best films of 2012, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.