safety not guaranteed

Dir. Colin Trevorrow
(2012, R, 86 minutes)

Safety Not Guaranteed goes pretty much where I expected it to. I thought it would get their sooner, actually, or maybe surprise me with a left turn – a left turn, that is, other than the one telegraphed from the beginning – but the script by Derek Connolly, who won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay and the screenwriting prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, follows a surprisingly conventional formula with touches of indie quirk.

But this is not a bad film. It’s a low-key charmer with appealing actors doing variations of their familiar personae. Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a magazine intern half a shade less dour than her deadpan role on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Jake Johnson, better known as underachieving Nick Miller on FOX’s New Girl, here plays another unmotivated man-child: Darius’s journalist boss Jeff, who hopes to revisit an earlier relationship. Mark Duplass, who in addition to acting is also the talented director of Jeff Who Lives at Home and Cyrus, does loveable-schlub duty as the subject of their investigation, Kenneth.

Kenneth has placed a newspaper ad seeking a companion for a time-travel mission, prompting Jeff and his interns Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni) to seek him out for a story, hoping to learn if he’s crazy or just a prankster. Darius poses as a prospective travel companion, and in the process starts to fall for him. They share sad backstories that add a touch more sentimentality than the film has earned – it’s at its best when it’s tartly whimsical – but writer Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow nevertheless get at something meaningful under the surface, if perhaps a bit on-the-nose: these characters are pursuing a cosmic do-over, either by nostalgia or by subverting the laws of space-time, whichever is more convenient.