Ever since the Back to the Future movies (and probably before), the whole idea of time travel has been co-opted from sci-fi nerd fantasy into the realm of touchy-feely comedy. Safety Not Guaranteed adds a lo-fi spin on the concept, and it does so with heartfelt charm, despite initial worries that this would be another wallow in above-it-all irony. Three Seattle Magazine employees — jaded veteran reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) and interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) — go on a road trip to follow up on a classified ad mysteriously asking for “someone to go back in time with me.” Wondering who might be beyond the slightly ominous note (“Must bring your own weapons,” it helpfully adds), they track down Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a thirtysomething paranoiac who dresses like a refugee from the eighties, a variation on the kind of gung-ho macho-wannabe losers played by John Goodman in The Big Lebowski and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket. Darius approaches the man and gains his trust; soon enough, she’s learning to shoot guns with him, in full survivalist mode, and accompanying him on break-ins to research facilities.
Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly pull off a deceptively tough balancing act here. Kenneth is a freak, but they treat him generously, even while acknowledging that this is all still taking place in the real world. (During the aforementioned break-in, the film cuts between Kenneth’s action-movie-style histrionics in the dark and a drab office party taking place next door.) The movie has to outsmart us, in a way, and it does so with a bit of a bait-and-switch: It manages to be a time-travel movie without anyone having to actually go back in time. While Darius and Kenneth connect, Jeff himself attempts to hook up again with a girl who once showed him the time of his life, back when he was in high school. When he does finally catch up with her, however, he finds her working in a hair salon looking not at all like the hot, svelte, nubile blonde he once knew. It’s to the somewhat douchey Jeff’s credit, though, that he gives it another chance. And soon enough, she seems transformed — fresh and beautiful in her own way. This second story line brings forth a deeper, more touching look at the human desire to go back in time. These characters get a glimpse of what may have been, and then realize that you can’t ever really go back home. (In that light, the film’s final moments, which I won’t give away, feel like a bit of a cop-out — sending the movie off in a direction that feels not just unearned but also, strangely, beneath it.)
However, the real revelation here is Plaza, whose shtick — the willowy cutie deadpanning about how lousy her life is — should be grating and tired, but it works remarkably well for some reason. Perhaps because underneath all that layered faux-tempt there’s a hint of something vulnerable and sweet, and the movie accesses that inner warmth. As she gets closer to this strange, damaged man, Darius sheds her too-cool-for-school veneer and seems filled with both romantic yearning and a kind of motherly grace. Everybody’s trying to get younger and here she is, growing up.