Safety Not Guaranteed may not win the title of the most poetic, evocative movie title in the history of cinema, but I doubt the producers, who also gave the world the similarly titled Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, much care.
Their intent, as it was with the previous two movies in their critically, and commercially, well-received canon, is not so much the accumulation of mantle-straining awards – although that they have those in abundance including the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award which they picked up at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival) – but the simple telling of a story about individuals encountering a situation that becomes so much greater and profound that they expected when they first encountered it.
In Little Miss Sunshine, it was a family road trip to take part in a child beauty pageant that unexpectedly became a life changing experience for all; in Safety Not Guaranteed, what appears to be a routine trip to investigate an unusual ad placed in a journal rapidly becomes a life altering event that transcends their ability to readily explain it.
Certainly journalist Jeff Schwensen (Mark M. Johnson, New Girl) only initially pitches the idea for a story initially about the ad to his editor (and bitter ex-lover), Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub, 24) at Seattle magazine – which actually appeared in 1997 in Backwoods Home Magazine as a joke filler in an under-subscribed issue by John Silveira and read as thus:
“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.”
as a way of going back to his hometown of Ocean View, Washington to reconnect with the supposed love of his life, Liz (Jenica Bergere).
Any pretensions to pursuing the story for high-falutin’ journalistic motivations are quickly dispensed with as he hits the road on what he regards as “a vacation”, with world-weary interns, Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation), and Arnau (Karan Soni), who realise all too quickly that they will be doing all the work.
Darius particularly, who is brought to life beautifully by Aubrey Plaza who has made a career to date of playing jaded young twenty-somethings, sets out to meet the man who placed the ad with all the enthusiasm of a woman being set ablaze in a cage full of Bubonic Plague-ridden rats.
In fact when Jeff suggests, at one of their many trips to a bar, that she be the one to interact with Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass, Your Sister’s Sister) after he fails to hit it off with the eccentric supermarket employee, Darius responds with:
“I’m not entirely comfortable with having my vagina hung out as bait for this guy.”
But go “fishing” she does and to her surprise, while Jeff pursues an ill-fated reunion with his beloved Liz, and Arnau sits around morosely waiting for god knows what to happen, finds herself attracted to the idiosyncratic Kenneth, who is at turns delusional and touchingly sincere.
No one is more surprised that Darius to find herself drawn to a man who is convinced that he has built a time machine that will take him back to 2001 so he can prevent a traumatic event in his life ever occuring.
The cynical girl who has piled on more protective emotional layers than a Muscovite has parkas on in the depths of winter, following the death of her mother when she was 14, and finds safety in her cynical detachment from the business of really living life, discovers herself sharing more than bargained for with a man who is also desperately wounded, and seek some sort of solace from the pain.
It almost becomes moot whether the time machine actually exists, and whether the government agents following him – in one of the humourous gems of a scene that gleefully litter the film, Aubrey is gobsmacked to find that Kenneth’s pursuers are, in fact, real government-issue men, trench coats and all – are there for any legitimate reason.
What matters in the end is whether Aubrey, cynical, expectation-less Aubrey, believes in him, and to her surprise, and that of Jeff and Arnau, who undergo their own cynicism-stripping of sorts, she does.
The ending of this quirky but warm-hearted movie, which looks definitive, but I suspect is nothing of the kind, is a storytelling sleight of hand that completes the idea that each of these damaged people, who for various reasons had ceased to believe that life could offer them anything but soul-destroying disappointment, have found, by story’s end, some measure of hope that perhaps life holds some surprises up its sleeve above all.