Think sci-fi done as down to earth basically, and minus blockbuster production values and special effects. And what you’re left with is pretty much Safety Not Guaranteed. Which is to say that this wishful thinking time travel itinerary plays out way better on screen than it sounds on paper. And fueled by sheer character and comic whim, rather than any cosmic contraption dubiously set for takeoff.
Safety Not Guaranteed is based on the bare bones reality of a classified ad that actually appeared in a Seattle rag, requesting a time travel mate for no reason in particular. The original ad appears in the film as the plot’s fanciful hook, though whether or not events taking place spurred on by this bizarre request figure in the story, is anybody’s guess.
In any case, the significantly less than enthused publication interns recruited to go find the mystery advertiser at a far flung seaside town, are borderline despondent Darius (Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza) and geek sidekick Arnau (Karan Soni). But unbeknownst to the demoralized duo, is that their contemptuous boss Jeff (Jake John) is along for much more than the ride. Namely, in pursuit of a bit of undercover time travel of his own. As Jeff obsesses about tracking down in the past his high school fling Liz (Jenica Bergere), not so coincidentally likewise residing over there.
And while Jeff sneaks off to make predatory moves on Liz, Darius and Arnau conspire to corner the elusive and exceedingly paranoid recluse in question, Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Who turns out to be a local supermarket clerk on the run from assorted G-men, owing to his tendency to steal spare parts for his time machine from government classified facilities.
Inevitably and somewhat unfathomably, Darius and Kenneth bond romantically. And over shared secret yearnings to visit the past for real, where the hope is to erase personal painful events respectively, through meaningful do-overs.
The mix of magical realism and palpable grunge requires a fair amount of getting used to, and sets in motion an uneven tone throughout. But tempered by the quirky humor and gritty charm of these offbeat characters. Who tend to render the whole lunatic nuts and bolts time travel operation, nearly beside the point.
2 1/2 stars
See the trailer of Safety Not Guaranteed: