‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ guarantees emotional honesty

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Time travel can go horribly, frightfully wrong. The merest alteration in the fabric of time could result in catastrophic results. Riskier than time travel is the time travel movie. With classics like “Back to the Future”, “Terminator” and “Donnie Darko” figuring prominently in the American canon, time travel pictures have to tread carefully. Sure, making a bad movie is not nearly as catastrophic as, say, accidentally killing your past self. But when your business is movie-making — arguably the best and most affordable method of time travel available to us — messing with the fourth dimension is no joke.

It’s curious, then, that “Safety Not Guaranteed”, starring Aubrey Plaza of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” starts with a joke. Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), a reporter at a Seattle magazine, has discovered a classified ad seeking a time travel partner and is itching to write about it. “It could be funny,” he tells his boss, and recruits “the lesbian” (Plaza) and “the Indian” (Karan Soni) to investigate this mysterious missive.

As it turns out, it is funny. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is outlandish in a jean jacket and Cosby sweaters. He’s the oddball who put the classified in the paper but to him, it is no joke. He really believes he is travelling to the past and doesn’t cede to transparently fake attempts, like those made by sleazeball Jeff, to be his partner in time.

It falls upon Darius’ (Plaza) shoulders to become the companion, in more ways than one, to Kenneth’s eccentric training and travel agenda. Darius is herself an oddball —  she drifted, dead-eyed and deadened, through high school and college, incredulous as to the people that populated her lonely world like so many unwanted rats. As an intern at the magazine, she is still waiting for time to show her some better thoughts.

Better thoughts come in the form of Kenneth. What began for Darius as a vague interest — for she is the type of girl who hasn’t been passionate about anything probably ever — becomes an obsession as she throws herself wholeheartedly into “gathering information.” Kenneth, the “Star Wars”-loving, shotgun-toting Grocery Outlet worker soon opens Darius up to her own fears and regrets, coaxing her out of her cool apathy in a personal journey that is decidedly more important than the passage through time.

“Safety Not Guaranteed”, for all its plot preoccupation with the logistical details of time travel, is more about “why we all need emotional time travel sometimes,” as director Colin Trevorrow said in a San Francisco Q&A this past Wednesday. “You’re not trying to manufacture emotion with people and yet people are responding emotionally,” Trevorrow said. It’s easy to see why — the movie is honest in that way that limited release indie films tend to be.

Yet the fact that this honesty can be derived from “Safety,” being a small production with limited funding, points to some of its problems. The characters are relatable by virtue of being stereotypical. Darius is an asocial recluse and Kenneth a social reject; Arnau (Soni) is the virgin nerd at whom Jeff takes frequent gibes because Jeff is a jackass, the type of guy who doesn’t take kindly to girls to whom “time has not been kind.” However, the great thing about “Safety” is that the viewer doesn’t mind the glaring cliches.

Maybe it’s Plaza’s unconventional deadpan sexiness or the fact that barely hidden beneath her glassy-eyed stare is an emotional vitality unlike anything we’re accustomed to seeing in her. Perhaps it’s the fact that the emotion in the film is not overwhelmingly dramatic, except perhaps in the case of Duplass, who is necessarily grandiloquent as the excitable weirdo. Who wouldn’t be excited at the prospect of traveling back in time and fixing one’s mistakes?

The reason cliches exist is because there is sufficient commonality to have them recur time and time again. “Safety Not Guaranteed” may not stray in any exceptional way from stock lonely, cynical characters but it may not need to. A lonely grocery store employee accompanied by a sharp intern with a sense of slogging along in life — who else could you see hoping to change the past into something more fitting? At its core, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a movie about people who are dissatisfied with their lot. They are searching for a time where they were emotionally fulfilled.

It’s an honest look at the human desire to find a safe place, and for much of humanity, that safe place resides in the past. What begins as a magazine pitch becomes a tale of transforming regret into redemption. Though safety may not be guaranteed, it is guaranteed fun — comedic, emotional, joyous fun.