First, let me talk a bit about my personal movie term “coin toss movie”. While it does not specify any particular genre, I sometimes use this term whenever I come across a certain type of film whose plot mostly depends on whether it will turn out to be A or B(An example: is he insane or is he right from the beginning?). Such movies usually toy with that kind of question to hold our attention before surprising us at the finale in one way or the other, and we may not get the answer even in the end if that is what was intended from the start.
After I went through the first 30 minutes of “Safety Not Guaranteed”, a small film which received positive reactions along with the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, I recognized that the movie is a typical specimen of “coin toss movie”, but it is also a smart, good-natured work which does not lazily dwell in the central question residing inside its story. While surely having some fun with its preposterous premise as balancing itself between two certain possibilities, it also pays considerable attention to its characters as unfolding its modest plot, and we come to have lots of reasons to care about them, regardless of whatever will happen at the ending waiting for us.
Its story revolves around a weird classified ad which happens to draw the attention of Jeff Schwensen(Jake Johnson), one of the writers working at Seattle Magazine. While not giving any particular information about who is behind this odd ad, it simply says, “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
This sounds pretty outrageous to say the least, but Jeff suggests that there may be an interesting story for their readers, and, as soon as his editor approves of his idea, he immediately goes to Ocean View, Washington with two young interns casually chosen by him. Arnau(Karan Soni) is an Indian American intern who is also a biology major(he entered internship just for filling his résumé), and Darius(Aubrey Plaza) is a grumpy smart-ass girl who is not very social with others.
Not long after they arrive in Ocean view, they quickly find the guy in question while watching on the P.O. box mentioned in the ad. They manage to follow after him while not exposing themselves, and then they get some basic information about him. His name is Kenneth Calloway(Mark Duplass), and he lives alone in his parents’ house while working as a clerk at a local grocery store, and, as far as Jeff and his interns can see, this average Joe does not look that weird on the surface.
But he is very, very serious about his secret plan. When Jeff approaches to Kenneth, Jeff instantly fails because Kenneth immediately senses that Jeff is not very serious about time travel. As the plan B, Darius approaches to Kenneth in the next attempt, and she succeeds in getting his trust while going along with his paranoia about being watched by someone, and she is soon accepted by him as his time travel partner.
While preparing for their upcoming time travel, Kenneth and Darius begin to spend more time with each other. They do a shooting training together in the forest near his house, and Darius helps Kenneth stealing several special equipments from a big
medical center during one night. It seems he does have a plan which can be succeeded at least in his view, and Mark Duplass, who has been steadily building his directing career with his brother Jay Duplass as making several nice character drama films including “Cyrus”(2010) and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”(2011), shows here that he is also a talented and engaging actor who can ably handle a tricky role like his character in this film. Although you cannot believe him much as listening to his unrealistic plan and dubious logics, Duplass is both earnest and offbeat in his well-balanced performance, and you may wonder about the real possibility of time travel, especially when it is revealed later in the story that there are the other guys secretly following Kenneth for some purpose.
On the opposite, Aubrey Plaza, who is not far from her deadpan persona in the TV comedy series “Parks and Recreation”, is also fabulous as a quirky girl who finds herself more attracted to an equally odd guy while getting to know about him with us. There is a heartfelt moment when Kenneth and Darius become more open to each other during their private time on the beach, and we come to see that they are not very different from each other as two lonely souls wishing to rectify something in their respective pasts.
With the screenplay by Derek Connolly, which was inspired by a real-life 1997 Backwoods Home Magazine classified ad(that was a practical joke, by the way), the director Colin Trevorrow mainly focuses on the interactions between characters, and that gives enough space to the other characters in the film. We learn that Jeff’s actual purpose behind his coverage is seeing his high school girlfriend, and his eventual encounter with Liz (Jenica Bergere) shows us how much he wants to feel young again even though he can never go back to that good old time of his. Jeff may be crass and insensitive sometimes, but he sincerely helps Arnau having some fun at one point, and, thanks to Jeff and his sunglasses, Arnau comes to experience a night to remember during one small scene, which is played out with a right balance between humor and sensitivity.
The movie ends its story a little too abruptly, but it smoothly handles its characters and their matters without a glitch during its climax scene, and the eventual choices made during that part do not feel contrived to us at all. I don’t dare to tell you what will happen in the end, but I can tell you that “Safety Not Guaranteed” is enjoyable enough to be called “Predictability Not Guaranteed”, and that is a good reason for my humble recommendation.