I can generally tell within the first five or ten minutes if I’m going to dislike a movie. Sure, sometimes things get off to a shaky start and salvage themselves as a story is allowed to develop, but unfortunately it’s often the opposite, and something that starts well falters later on. Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, a film with a more unpleasant opening than anything I’ve seen recently, tried valiantly to win me back but was sadly only around halfway successful.
The film stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius, an interning magazine journalist sent with two colleagues to research a story about a bizarre and mysterious classified ad seeking a partner in a time travel mission. What follows is a fairly generic love story which is sweet enough, and the quirky time travel element provides a freshness lacking in many indie romances. Plaza is her usual moody self, yet is allowed to strip away some of her trademark cynicism as her character warms to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the potentially damaged loner responsible for the classified ad, showing a tender side not seen from her before.
Their relationship is a cute coming together of two social misfits, and works pretty well despite some questionable plot holes and an ending that doesn’t quite add up. However, this is only half of Safety Not Guaranteed, and Darius and Kenneth’s story is hampered by a brief runtime (86 minutes), too much of which is spent on the secondary story concerning Darius’ fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and boss Jeff (Jake Johnson).
Any warmth Trevorrow generates in scenes of Darius and Kenneth is obliterated every time the film switches to the mean-spirited, creepy antics of Jeff, who is using the trip to rekindle a past romance with Liz (Jenica Bergere), dragging troubling ethnic stereotype Arnau along for the ride. Jeff is such a leering, off-putting character, uncomfortably dragging what could be a decent film down an irredeemable degree, and after the ham-fisted attempt at redemption following his encounter with Liz blows up in his face, he simply slips back into his obnoxious persona, giving gross macho advice to the meek Arnau.
The jarring juxtaposition of the two narrative threads results in a film that is tonally all over the place, sending contradictory messages and wrapping up with little satisfaction. There is a charming if slight romance in Safety Not Guaranteed, it’s just a pity it is surrounded with such a distasteful garnish.