From the outset, “Safety Not Guaranteed” offers up a great hook for a comedy romp with a sci-fi twist. What it delivers instead is a capable, romantic story with a handful of solid laughs and not many new ideas.
The story goes thus: three reporters for a magazine investigate a classified ad looking for a companion for time travel. Intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza, “Parks and Recreation”) takes charge of the investigation and learns more about the possibly delusional man that placed the ad, Kenneth, (Mark Duplass, “The League”). Her boss, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson, “21 Jump Street”), uses the excursion to find an old girlfriend, leaving the other intern, Arnau (newcomer Karan Soni), to pick up the slack.
Even though it’s a romantic comedy with time travel, watching “Safety Not Guaranteed” feels like treading on all-too-familiar ground. The plot stays safely in rom-com territory, wrapping up too neatly and leaving a few loose ends uncomfortably dangling.
The time travel aspect that sets “Safety Not Guaranteed” apart from the rest of the rom-com crowd doesn’t get explored much in terms of morality or mechanics, instead serving as a mere plot device. People hoping for a headier sci-fi movie will be sadly disappointed, but it makes the story more accessible to regular moviegoers.
The focus is not on the time travel or the awkward situations the investigation creates, but rather on the characters, how they interact with each other and what happens when they try to get what they want. Darius and Kenneth bond over being misfits with pasts they’d rather change. Arnau and Jeff’s dynamic becomes especially fun to watch, dealing with missed opportunities and the joys of youth.
The acting holds up to all of these interpersonal interactions. Plaza does the same dour-with-a-side-of-quirky act that she’s known for, and Mark Duplass seems to channel Dwight Schrute with his antics. But all of the cast members turn good performances. The actors are skilled enough to convey their characters’ growth throughout the film, making their transformation away from a cynical attitude all the more believable.
It’s a good thing the characters are entertaining, because the film isn’t much to look at. “Safety Not Guaranteed” doesn’t manage to have a distinctive visual style, instead barraging the viewers with simply uninteresting cinematography. It was clearly filmed on a low budget, but that doesn’t give an excuse for most of the dull and impersonal shots.
The dreary Washington town of Ocean View, where most of the movie takes place, offers little color or personality, with the exception of Kenneth’s dilapidated house. The soundtrack is similarly generic, sounding like a rote indie movie score that thankfully doesn’t get in the way too often.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” overall does little to distinguish itself. If you’re looking for a movie to take a date to, or are just craving a romantic comedy, it’s inoffensive and well-acted enough to work. You won’t be left with a big impression, but you’ll be entertained during the ride.