WARNING: Heavy spoilers follow. My reaction to the film hinges very much on key plot points, including the ending, and to put my reaction and accompanying score into context, it’s impossible to avoid them.
Safety Not Guaranteed has all the ingredients for a great movie. It has (mostly) charming characters each with their own defined backstories and personalities, an odd but interesting story and relationships that ring true, but it doesn’t capitalize on them. There are a number of nagging issues with all those aspects. By the time the end credits roll around, your initial reaction of greatness will have faded to mere adequacy, but it’s not that Safety Not Guaranteed is particularly bad. It just has so much potential and fails to live up to it.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is not the happiest girl in the world. Her father is in a poor state, her mother was killed years ago and she can’t find a job. The best she can do is land an unpaid internship at a Seattle magazine where she is underappreciated by her boss, Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and given menial tasks to do, like changing the toilet paper in the bathrooms. One day, she lands a story with journalist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and another intern named Arnau (Karan Soni) investigating a strange ad that recently popped up in the papers: someone is asking for a partner to join him in time travel. Believing this man to be nothing more than a kook, the three head out to his neck of the woods and apply for the job. While Arnau and Jeff stand back, Darius befriends the man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who begins to train her in preparation for their eventual journey.
Safety Not Guaranteed could have easily been a mean-spirited movie, one that poked fun at Kenneth for believing in something that many think is impossible. It could have made him look like a mentally challenged madman and in another, less sophisticated film, that probably would have been the case, but here he is treated with respect. His willingness and wanting to go back in time is so sincere you can’t help but love him, a notion the filmmakers rightfully realized early on. His relationship with Darius is tended to so well that she begins to believe that he may be the real deal, as does the audience.
Of course, the realization that his plan won’t actually work floats around in the back of the viewer’s mind while watching. This story is grounded in reality (and is actually based on an actual Backwoods Home Magazine ad from 1997) and such a story would never go so far as to actually send them back in time. But then it does. The film culminates in Darius hopping aboard a time travelling machine with Jeff and heading back to 2001, a time period chosen so Darius can stop her mother from being killed and Jeff can try to win the affections of a young crush named Belinda (Kristen Bell). This ending is baffling, comes out of nowhere and somehow manages to both succeed and fail on parallel levels.
Because the story is about time travel and, more specifically, about a man who is wanted by the government for stealing high tech equipment, a realistic ending would not be sufficient. Had the time travelling machine failed, Jeff would have immediately been shipped off to jail and Darius along with him for being an accomplice. A happy ending would be impossible, so by sending them off together, the film nails the emotional ending it was striving for. However, because the film built their relationship to a certain romantic point, where they had fallen in love with each other, their motivations for going back in time become moot. Jeff no longer needs to go back to 2001 to win over Belinda. He has Darius (his last line of the movie is actually along the lines of, “I’m not going back for her anymore, I’m going back for you”), so what’s the point? Similarly, if Darius were to stop her mother from being killed, as she would understandably want to do, her entire life trajectory would change, meaning she never would have met Jeff and none of this would have happened.
The ending also brings to question many of the scenes that came before, including why Jeff would insist on survival training (which includes the usage of firearms) if they were only travelling back to 2001. Had he just been crazy or living out some absurd fantasy, his irrational behaviors would have made since, and do at the time, but they don’t upon reflection because he’s not crazy. He’s more sane than anyone in the movie. This off-the-wall ending works on basic human levels and will provide an emotionally happy ending for those wanting one, but it also punches numerous holes in its plot, some so gaping you could fit an aircraft carrier through them.
Aside from the main plot, there are also a couple side stories involving Arnau as he learns how to win ladies over and Jeff as he tries to rekindle an old flame, but both are merely filler, uninteresting diversions that stretch out its runtime to an already bare 85 minutes. Up until that ending, though, the main story will grab ahold of you. The characters are well written and the performances bring them to life. Despite some key dramatic moments being punctuated by uncomfortable bits of humor, the movie makes you care, but that feeling of disappointment lingers on. Safety Not Guaranteed looked like it could have been one of the best of the year. Instead, it’s merely serviceable.
Safety Not Guaranteed receives 3/5