I’m wary of the cheap look of some independent films that seem like a couple of episodes of a cable TV show, with dialogue that seems improvised, way too many characters and shaky camerawork and production values. Thankfully, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a 2012 film directed by Colin Trevorrow, avoids all these faults and manages to be witty, well-made and interesting. It concerns a trio of magazine workers from Seattle who venture into Ocean View, Washington, to find out about man who claims to own a time machine. Because of the charismatic performances of the actors in the main plot line, the movie contains enough likability and drive to delight the audience and keep them guessing about a not improbable ending.
Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, an intern at Seattle Magazine. During an editorial conference, brash writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) proposes an investigation of a man who placed an advertisement in a newspaper about time travel. The ad offers a job as a passenger in a time machine. Jeff convinces the editor to allow him to travel to the small town where the job lister lives; he takes interns Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni) with him. They are an odd combination: Jeff, a thirty-something, continually brags about his sexual conquests while Arnau is a sexually repressed Indian-American college student. Darius is a quick-witted and sincere but somewhat morose woman who yearns to find acceptance and love but manages to sabotage her efforts. As she says, “I expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up.” Even her father wonders why she’s still a virgin in a surprisingly blunt dinner conversation.
The time-machine guy, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), turns out to be a cashier at the Grocery Outlet in Ocean View. He’s into lasers and physics theories, and is also a big-time believer in government conspiracies. After Kenneth rebuffs Jeff, Darius offers her services. In my favorite scene, Darius approaches Kenneth while he restocks soup cans. In full cloak and dagger mode, Darius comes across as an ultra operative as she and Kenneth exchange witty dialogue about the dangers they face. The following scenes show Darius and Kenneth training for their mission, and include target practice with pistols. In spite of Kenneth’s weirdness, I became only slightly concerned about Darius’ safety because of their obvious chemistry.
The movie veers off into a couple of subplots involving Jeff and Arnau, fueled by Jeff’s obsessions. But the movie works best when it stays centered on Darius. Since it’s a time-machine story, the movie includes some subtext questioning whether the characters already changed their lives by time travel. A few things double back on themselves and the ending only reinforces the subtleties and setups Kenneth meticulously channels for the audience. Darius and Kenneth’s reasons for time travel become less clear as the movie goes on, which makes one think they’ve already returned with their answers.