Penning a story for Seattle magazine, cocky journalist Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) decides to track down the writer of a classified advertisement for a (Doctor Who-style) time-travelling companion. “Safety not guaranteed,” warns the ad, “I have only done this once before.” Underappreciated intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is enlisted to assist Jeff on the project, along with the painfully awkward Arnau (Karan Soni), and the mismatched threesome set out to get the scoop on the curious character.
The man in question turns out to be the somewhat less than mysterious shelf-stacking supermarket employee Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), whose co-workers humour him as he recites his theories on the space-time continuum whilst surrounded by tins of Campbell’s soup. Seemingly paranoid, he refuses to speak to Jeff about his time-travel plans, and Darius is instead sent undercover as an applicant for his ad.
Plaza soon steals the show, as Darius charms Kenneth with her wry wit and a pseudo action-heroine persona, without veering too far into Zooey Deschanel territory as an indie pin-up girl with more style than substance. Proving to be a captivating screen presence, it is as Darius begins to trust Kenneth, and perhaps even believe in his plans, that initial scepticism about his character begins to fade away.
Whilst mumblecore alumna Duplass (who, along with his brother Jay Duplass, is one of the film’s many producers), might verge on irritating at times, he treads the line between credible and delusional faultlessly. There certainly aren’t many who could whip out a zither and play a song titled ‘Big Machine’ during one of the film’s most tender moments and get away with it. Much credit is due to Derek Connolly’s script: packed full of deadpan humour and quotable dialogue, it’s perfect for the low-budget set-up.
First-time director Colin Trevorrow handles the characters brilliantly, giving just enough time to the sub-plots to stop this light-hearted film from becoming too sci-fi-heavy. “What are you going back for?” is the question which Kenneth poses to his potential companions, yet Safety Not Guaranteed is a film which reveals itself to be far more concerned with the journeys of its characters long before they get anywhere near a time machine. From Arnau’s sexual awakening, to Jeff’s re-kindled romance with an old flame, there’s plenty to keep those who don’t those who don’t get the storm trooper references hooked.
The film falters only when it comes to the closing scene. Much of this film’s allure is hinged on creating a sense of uncertainty, and so the final revelation (if not quite a resolution) feels somehow destined to be anti-climactic. Even so, it’s thoroughly refreshing to watch an indie flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and with a Boxing Day release, Safety Not Guaranteed is an endearing offbeat alternative for those who have watched their share of TV rom-coms over the festive season.