Safety Not Guaranteed: A Film With “Weird Mojo” That Totally Works

One of the few indie films that never crosses the line into forced quirkiness.

Sometimes nothing feels better than sinking into a rickety old theater seat to watch an indie film that’s not big enough for the cushy-seat cinemas.

This was my experience with Safety Not Guaranteed, an offbeat movie that perfectly blends up time travel with a dash of rom-com. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this movie is, but that works in its favor.

The movie was inspired by a real ad placed in Backwoods Home magazine in 1997:

“Wanted: Someone 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.”

In the movie, magazine writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) — also a 30-something playboy — takes two interns to investigate Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the man who placed the ad. While Jeff spends his time pursuing an old flame and getting the virginal college student (Karan Soni) laid, the other intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) answers the ad to learn more about the mysterious Kenneth.

Darius is anti-social and unable to find a real job. Even her father calls her a virgin and says she needs to get out more. That makes her the perfect person to investigate a man like Kenneth, who really seems to believe he can time travel. He steals equipment — including lasers — from research labs. He trains with guns and teaches Darius to shoot. He’s even set up a ridiculous obstacle course to train for the time travel experience, which could apparently involve martial arts. And he’s paranoid, convinced he’s being followed.

Any other intern would probably write off Kenneth as crazy from the start, but that’s not Darius. As Jeff puts it to Darius, “Your weird mojo clicked with his weird mojo” — and that makes the romance between Darius and Kenneth totally believable. It’s also wonderfully underplayed. The performances of Plaza and Duplass make the characters sweet and irresistible, even as you learn that Kenneth may not be right in the head.

I’ve always loved films about characters who are a little off — Ryan Gosling’s performance as Lars in Lars and the Real Girl springs to mind — but this is the first film I’ve seen that gets that sort of character completely right. Duplass’s performance makes Kenneth feel very real. He pursues every “mission” he dreams up in earnest, giving away small (and possibly troubling) details of his past as he trusts Darius more and more. It’s easy to want to feel sorry for Kenneth, but Darius’s positive view of him makes you root for him. Even in scenes like Kenneth’s hilariously failed attempt to remain unseen by security cameras during a heist, you laugh at him but never to the point of making fun of him.

The film builds to a sweet romance as you wonder whether Kenneth really is a genius who can build a time machine or just a lovable mental case. Though I thought the film’s ending was great, the movie isn’t really about time travel as much as why Darius, Kenneth and even characters like Jeff wish they could go back in time.

It’s a character movie. It’s a movie that’s slightly sci-fi but mostly honest about people. It’s a little movie — there were fewer than 10 of us in the theater — but it’s full of pluck, and I highly recommend it to anyone who craves something offbeat and wonderful.

— Ashley

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