June 9, 2012



SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED:  Worth A Ticket – Time Is Of Its Essence

Nothing in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED happens the way you’d expect.  The film was inspired by a real-life classified ad run by someone looking for a companion for time travel, advising that applicants “must bring your own weapons.”  But it’s not a docudrama, and it’s not a flat-out comedy, either.  The indie movie’s special effects–for the most part–are its people.

The writer, Derek Connolly, and director, Colin Trevorrow (this is the first feature for both), set their story in Washington state.  A less-than-intrepid reporter at Seattle Magazine, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson, Nick from New Girl) has seen the ad, and he proposes a snarky story about the crackpot that ran it.  He travels out to the sticks to find the guy, bringing along interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza, Parks & Recreation‘s April Ludgate) and Arnau (Karan Soni).   What they find seems to live up to their derisive dreams:  the ad was written by Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a paranoid, somewhat wild-eyed grocery store clerk who spouts his theories about multiple presents and time as a river to anyone who’ll listen, and who’s convinced that government agents are following him, on the trail of his secret time-travel machine.

As cracked as he may be, Kenneth knows immediately that Jeff is no one to be trusted when the reporter tries to apply for the time travel assistant slot, so Jeff sends Darius in to make contact.  And this is where Safety Not Guaranteed starts to unexpectedly shift its gears into something deeper and more soulful, because Darius finds her own hard shell being pierced by Kenneth’s enthusiasm and underlying pain.  The past has a very particular meaning for Kenneth, and it turns out to have one for everyone else in the story too.

Safety Not Guaranteed is its own individual something, but it recalls the early pre-Silence of the Lambs movies of Jonathan Demme, warm, character-based tall tales like Handle With Care and Melvin and Howard.   All the characters–even nerdy Arnau, who seemed at first to be mere comedy relief–has been living in hiding for one reason or another, and the film is about the joys, and the risks, of emerging to face the world.  The result is a remarkably rich piece of work that successfully swings from big laughs to moments of emotional darkness, with room for some unexpected plot twists.  And despite a storyline that would seem to guarantee indie movie ambiguity at the end, if for no other reason than budgetary restrictions–can Kenneth really travel back in time?–the conclusion isn’t a cop-out at all.

The center of Safety is Plaza’s Darius.  On Parks, Plaza’s character was the one most deepened this past season, and Plaza takes that process farther here, bringing her character from the kind of deadpan sarcasm well within her safety zone to someone open and ready to embrace the crazy.  Duplass, himself a writer/director of movies like Cyrus (and a producer here) stretches as an actor too, playing someone whose level of being out of touch with reality is always in question.

At 85 minutes, Safety Not Guaranteed is the rare movie that could have afforded to be a little longer:  the secondary storyline, about Jeff and his own visit to the past by seeking out his first girlfriend, feels hurried and not quite complete, and while Trevorrow has done a great job at giving the film a close-to-studio look despite what had to be a very limited budget, at times the story feels underpopulated.  Better, though, to leave an audience wanting more than less.

Safety Not Guaranteed is sort of sneaking its way into release:  its initial 9-theatre run, at least in Los Angeles, is bypassing both of the city’s flagship indie film meccas for the tender mercies of AMC multiplexes.  Although it’s a small-scale movie that will work on a home-theatre screen, it would be a shame to see the film fail to get the recognition and attention it deserves.  In a season of massively-budgeted CG extravaganzas, most of which treat their characters like commodities to be posed against green screens, and indie projects (like Lola Versus) that follow Sundance templates all too closely, here’s a picture that provides both original, escapist entertainment and people well worth caring about.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."