Safety Not Guaranteed is low-key and worthwhile, and it raises some low-key and worthwhile questions. Can someone who is very serious about something laughably eccentric be treated with respect? How far can a movie dissociate itself from its plot's reason for existing and remain honest? How optimistic should we be about a movie based on a 2005 Internet meme?
Director Colin Trevorrow's big-screen debut follows a magazine intern named Darius (Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza) who gets roped into a lighthearted, potentially mean-spirited story investigating the person behind a personal ad looking for "Someone to go back in time with me."
"This is not a joke," warns the ad, and the movie plays with the veracity of this statement, setting itself up to be likable by following characters who set out to do something a little bit nasty but begin to change their approach as they warm to their subject. At first, the movie seems to be going along with the nastiness, but it takes a turn toward friendliness along with its characters. Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly aren't aggressive about it, but pretending to be mean when you're actually nice and harmless is a little cheap. The movie's sense of place feels far more genuine—the little streets between houses in this small northwestern town, the dusty grocery story, the constant dampness.
The collection of characters in Safety Not Guaranteed make up a ragtag bunch with familiar, spelled-out motivations. Darius wants to atone for the unappreciative attitude she had toward her mom. Arnau (Karan Soni), her fellow intern, wants to hook up with Darius. Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the guy who placed the ad, wants to be taken seriously. Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), the staff writer who pitched the story, wants to hook up with his high-school ex. (He's doing a sort of time traveling of his own, though he's too thick to see the irony.) The movie is unabashedly easy to understand and easy to watch.
As the tone gets warmer and everyone becomes a better person, it also feels good to watch, but it would probably be more honest if Darius weren't so quick to let down her guard around Kenneth. He wins her over because, even though he might be crazy, he's genuine. This gives the snarky Plaza a chance to thaw, which she's good at. But she's so prickly to begin with that she has nowhere to go but more cuddly. Again, it's a little cheap. Kenneth's a paranoiac who has trouble trusting anyone, and even though his conditions for accepting another person come from his (probably) delusional view of the world, Darius is still flattered when he confides in her.
But is Kenneth delusional? Safety plays with such low stakes that you can't be confident that it won't get a little crazy. What has it got to lose? Kenneth proves to be both laughable and impressive, committed so deeply that he takes serious risks: during one break-in scene, the daffy excitement of Kenneth's lifestyle is cleverly contrasted with a humdrum office party. By the end of the movie, the world of Safety is just as much Kenneth's as any skeptic's. And that might be the point. Just as Darius's prickliness softens (however predictably) and the movie's potential mean-spiritedness turns to earnestness, Safety Not Guaranteed is an earth-toned missive against cynicism. Hard to completely dislike that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Low-stakes likability."