Safety Not Guaranteed-attachment0

Safety Not Guaranteed

Movie Information

The Story: A trio of writers from Seattle magazine go looking for the story behind an ad looking for a partner for a time travel experiment. The Lowdown: A funny, moving, close to perfect little film that constantly defies the odds to become much more than what its premise and budget suggest is possible. A must-see film.
Genre: Comedy Drama with Sci-Fi Aspects
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, William Hall, Jr., Kristen Bell
Rated: R

Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed is probably not the best movie you’ll see all year, but it might just be the most special one. This is a little movie (budgeted at a reported $750,000)  that could have gone wrong in so many ways and at so many points — and somehow it never does. It’s the kind of high concept movie where you go in fully expecting the resolution to be a lemon. It looks for all the world like it’s going to wear its indie cred on its sleeve — and it kind of does start that way. But it oh so slyly pulls you into its story and, more importantly, into its characters. It emerges as…well, something very special.

This is a hard movie to reduce to a synopsis, and a harder one to write about without giving away too much. But I will say, I liked the film even better watching it a second time when I knew where it was going and could appreciate the nuances — when I could realize that the whole movie is grounded in its characters and the audience experiencing a series of epiphanies as the story progressed. The premise is simple enough and is taken from a real event — or at least a real classified ad reading, “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. Safety Not Guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” In the film, Jeff (Jake Johnson, 21 Jump Street), a writer for a magazine, pitches the ad for a potential story. Arming himself with a couple of interns (“Give me the lesbian and the Indian”), he goes in pursuit of the prospective subject in a small beach town in Washington. The interns are actually Darius (Aubrey Plaza, TV’s Parks and Recreation), who isn’t a lesbian and Arnau (Karan Soni), who is an Indian.

Darius is a fairly gloomy realist (“Now, I just expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up”), who quickly realizes that this is more a vacation to Jeff than anything else. (In reality, Jeff has a kind of time travel of his own in mind, hoping to hook up with an old girlfriend.) However, when Jeff strikes out in attempting to answer the time travel ad, Darius finds herself given the job of hooking the advertiser because of her gender (“You’re dangling my vagina out there like bait,” she complains). Regardless, she convinces Kenneth (Mark Duplass) she could be his time-traveling companion. Kenneth is a slightly twitchy, clearly paranoid, social misfit who works as a stocker in a grocery store — and who clearly believes he can time travel. He may or may not be nuts, but he’s not a phony.

That’s as far as I’m going in terms of outlining the plot. Let the film do the rest in that regard. While the plot is surprisingly strong, complex and developed (all in 86 minutes, too), the real secret lies in the characters and the fact that neither Trevorrow, nor writer Derek Connolly, ever look down on any of these people. There is a true sense of simple humanity in their collective journey of discovery over the course of the film. Moments of their realizations have a piercing quality that goes straight to the heart — like Jeff drunkenly shouting that Aurno is his best friend, or admitting that he no longer knows what the story they’re working on is about.

All of the actors are excellent, but somehow Duplass’ damaged Kenneth is the gem for me. Duplass crafts a person of such innate sweetness and innocence that you believe he would feel it necessary to ask if Darius knows what Star Wars is, and talk about his Star Wars figures from when he was younger in terms of them getting lonely. Yet he never seems affected or emotionally stunted. (And that’s borne out by a revelation Darius has — conveyed solely by her expression — when talking to his ex-not-really-girlfriend.) It’s a beautiful performance in an equally beautiful film. I really can’t find a false step in the movie — and, not that it matters much — that extends to Kenneth’s basic notions of time travel. Rated R for language including some sexual references.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

88 thoughts on “Safety Not Guaranteed

  1. Ken Hanke

    Just got in from the AFS Word of Mouth screening. If the reaction, vibe, and things I was told afterwards is anything to go by, I’m not the only one who fell in love with this movie. (Though come to think of it, I didn’t hear anything from Mr. Arnaudin post-screening.)

  2. Xanadon't

    I can’t wait to fall in love with it. Except that I’m gonna have to. *&%#ing Bele Chere weekend will make it all but impossible for me to see over the weekend and then I get on a plane first thing Monday morning. Ah hell, it looks like August 6th might be my earliest realistic chance.

  3. Mr.Orpheus

    Well, I thought it was spectacular, especially in its use of time travel as an interesting, organic plot device, rather than some excuse to be “that quirky indie movie with time travel.” The way the film uses time travel as a humanizer, as a way to connect the audience to its characters, is pretty astounding. In fact it might be the best use of time travel I’ve seen in a movie, even if it doesn’t quite reach the illustrious heights of best use of a zither.

  4. Ken Hanke

    It’s no Third Man in the zither department, but after multiple viewings I’ve ended up buying the damned song from Amazon. (Then again, is that even what we think of as a zither in the Anton Karas sense?)

  5. Xanadon't

    It is obvious that your life is just too much a mad whirlwind of excitement.

    Not exactly how I would phrase. But then again, maybe I should start- I’d probably find myself less grumpy that way.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Well, we disagree on Ms. Plaza and we really disagree on the ending. What was a bust for you was bliss for me.

  7. Edwin Arnaudin

    We similarly disagreed about Paul Dano in BEING FLYNN.

    As you suggest, I’m interested in seeing this one again, knowing how it ends. But it still sounds like you experienced bliss on the initial viewing.

  8. Ken Hanke

    As far as the ending goes, yes, that was on the first viewing. Without saying too much for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, I believe that the ambiguity you wanted would have all but ruined the film for me. There’s ambiguity enough as it stands. It didn’t need to have been the usual indie film lemon of an answer that I’d been dreading from the very beginning.

  9. luluthebeast

    And I might actually get to see this! Yes, it has come to Green Bay and I hope to catch it on Monday.

  10. Me

    The ending really dampened this film for me. It felt like the whole film was pointing towards “you can’t change the past and to live in the here and now” and then…


    …we find out oh yeah you can because im on a boat MFer im on a boat. I was praying to God that they at least didn’t make it take off like the Delorean on water.

    I hope they put the original ending before it was rewritten on the DVD.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I hope you don’t mind, but I reworked your comment to better and more clearly set off your spoiler, since it’s a pretty huge one. (Which is why Mr. Arnaudin and I took our discussion to e-mail.)


    I find it interesting that what you hoped it was pointing toward is one of the hoariest bromides in the history of literature, but, no matter. I really don’t see what it being on a boat had to do with why it’s possible. Certainly the film never makes any such claim as the one you do. According to the director there is no such thing as “the original ending.” The machine was always in the script. It was, however, shot two different ways in case he didn’t like the way it played out, but as he says, “It became very clear at a certain point where I just couldn

  12. luluthebeast

    [b]In the filmspotting interview below he talks about the other ending at Sundance being drastically different.[/b]

    But this isn’t what ended up on the screen, is it?

  13. Ken Hanke

    In the filmspotting interview below he talks about the other ending at Sundance being drastically different.

    That may be. I don’t know because I can’t get the site to play the interview in question, but the information I gave you and the quote are directly from Trevorrow in this interview:

    It’s on page two.

    The “im on a boat” part was a Lonely Island joke that went over your head apparently.

    I happily concede your greater knowledge of the works of Andy Samberg and the guy who made Hot Rod and The Watch.

  14. Ken Hanke

    OK, I got the interview to play and he does not say that the ending that was seen at Sundance was different. He says that the ending on the version that was first submitted to them was, but that the version that played at Sundance is the one in the film you saw.

  15. luluthebeast

    Wonderful movie! The first time I saw Plaza was on Letterman two or three weeks ago and I thought she was great. Even though I think Duplass did a better job with his character overall, I had a hard time taking my eyes off of her in her reactions to him and others around her. It was a nice change going to a movie where the main focus was on human interaction. And I liked the ending.

  16. Ken Hanke

    Wonderful movie!

    I concur — and the box office here over the weekend seems to be in agreement, since it was like three times the national average.

    And I liked the ending.

    I have a theory about this and age groups…

  17. Me

    Ken just click on the download part in the interview section and it should play it in your browser or click on it and “save link as” and it should download it from there as an mp3.

  18. Ken Hanke

    Remember when you guys smashed me and said this movie looked like another dumb indie movie.

    Actually, I remember when you were touting it for all the hype it had been getting and I said — skeptical as I always am of Sundance hype — that the trailer looked more interesting than usual.

    Ken just click on the download part in the interview section and it should play it in your browser or click on it and “save link as” and it should download it from there as an mp3.

    If you’ll scroll back, you’ll see that I got it to play and remarked on what Trevorrow said about that earlier cut.

  19. Justin Souther

    I’m sure I’ll be chided by Ken later tonight, but my only issue with the film was the ending. Not that I found it cliched by any means, but the pacing seemed off, and the last five minutes or so felt rushed to me. Personally, I think it was just me hoping for something a bit more — for lack of a better word — magical.

    If I see it again, knowing where it ends up, perhaps it’ll work a bit better for me.

  20. Ken Hanke

    I’m not sure it does, since Justin says, “I think it was just me hoping for something a bit more — for lack of a better word — magical.” That’s out of keeping with the other complaints about the ending. Justin, however, is on board with you about the pacing. I think you’re both nuts, but…

  21. luluthebeast

    Pacing was fine, besides, what’s not magical about Kenneth realizing he had been all nutsy-fagin in his obsession and that Darius was the one who needed his help and then Darius making her decision?

  22. Andrew Leal

    It’s as acceptable a phrase as centrifugal bumblepuppy, if hardly as felicitous on the tongue and to the ear. Dates at least to Clifford Odets circa 1938 but he was already using it in reference to something now obscured by time, some have posited a long forgotten vaudeville act or somesuch. It seemed to be possibly regional, since I find its use mostly coming from New Yorkers or those environs, past and present (or maybe East Coast in general; chances are Chester can better clarify). Used as a noun to describe someone who is non compos mentis, or as Chester did, as an adjective to idescribe behavior. Or even, in my favorite random example found in a book, “I didn’t know him from Nutsy Fagan.” (I’ve seen it as “Nutsy Fagin,” “Nutsy Fagan,” “nutsy-fagin” as above,” and so on).

    Still easier to suss out than Shakespeare’s use of the word “Sowter” (apparently a then recognizable name for a hound, ala Rover or Rex today, but doesn’t make it any easier when I have to say “Sowter will cry upon’t for all this!” with conviction).

  23. luluthebeast

    It could be taken as a strange come-on, or a quote from one of the worst movies ever made…..CABIN BOY, with Letterman asking the question.

    People can make up their own mind which!

  24. Ken Hanke

    As the only person to pay to see it, I loved CABIN BOY.

    I admit I only saw it because I was doing that Tim Burton book. But I did, as I say, kind of like it — and Adam Resnick is a super nice guy.

    And what have I told you about hittig that damned “reply” button?

    By the way — anybody want to get back to Safety Not Guaranteed?

  25. Andrew Leal

    Well, seems the thing actually *has* opened in El Paso, snuck in somehow in the last few days at one theater only. I had a root canal redone last Thursday and haven’t had vehicle access all week, and work on Saturday. I may give it a shot next Tuesday if I decide not to have my tooth rebuilt that day (something I’d normally delay willingly but I have plays coming up, in speaking parts).

  26. luluthebeast

    I’m really glad I saw it when I did as it only lasted one week here. They are replacing it with BERNIE.

  27. Ken Hanke

    Bernie is good, but not as good. I am a little surprised, though. It must not have done the numbers there that it did here! (Its weekend gross here was about three times the national average.)

  28. Xanadon't

    With all this ending/age group theory business going on I’m even more excited to see this movie. Okay, well now that I’m back in town it shouldn’t be too much longer…

  29. Ken Hanke

    With all this ending/age group theory business going on I’m even more excited to see this movie. Okay, well now that I’m back in town it shouldn’t be too much longer…

    Well, what are you waiting for? Much is riding on the outcome. That may be an overstatement.

  30. Xanadon't

    Well, what are you waiting for?

    Monday, probably. But there’s a slim chance I sneak it in tomorrow afternoon.

    Much is riding on the outcome. That may be an overstatement.

    Well if my response to the film doesn’t fall in line with your working-theory, then of course it should go down as an overstatement!

  31. Ken Hanke

    So you may leave us hanging on the meathook till Monday, huh? Of course, I’m just curious how you’ll feel about it altogether, since you weren’t as whelmed by Moonrise Kingdom as I was.

  32. Xanadon't

    What I saw was a refreshingly sweet-natured and over-achieving in about every way imaginable indie-flick with exciting ideas and a remarkably sound grasp on how to tell its story and allow its revelations to unfold for both the characters and the audience.

    The best part maybe is that it never had to fish its sweetness out from gooey pools of sentiment- the effect was achieved organically from its impressive script and performances.

    Really I can’t think of an ending more pleasantly romantic than the one we get, nor an ending that would be a better fit for the film. Perhaps the way the ending goes over with audiences has less to do with age and more to do with expectations about what these types of films tend to be and the attitudes they exude versus what they can be when told by someone who’s more interested in achieving a well-conceived overall emotional (not to mention visual) effect than retaining joyless “indie-cred”.

  33. Ken Hanke

    Well, you make a case I won’t argue with — and I don’t mind that you’ve demolished my age theory.

  34. Big Al

    love-Love-LOVED it!

    Great chick-flick-with-a-twist. I especially loved Aubrey/Darius’ looks while running through the woods when she realizes “I’ve found someone (who is as damaged as me)!” and the way she effortlessly flirted her way into his “mission” at the grocery store.

    It has everything I want in a love story: time travel, guns, zither music (OK, I prefer bagpipes, but this was good, too) and mid-life crisis sex with a chick who can cook!

    This was my 2012 “Midnight in Paris”. Sorry, Woody.

  35. Todd T

    Really liked the performances in this film, and interested in the discussion here about the ending. The film engendered enough goodwill with me that I tried to get into the spirit of the ending, but I’m still not sold on it. Or the argument that it was the only one possible. Or the argument that downbeat endings have become so de rigueur for indie films that somehow the cliched happy ending that damaged so many films back in the 40s (when the studios used to insist upon them) has now become the fresher, more original choice. I loved the devastatingly downbeat ending of Young Adult, for example, but I’m not sure this film needed a downbeat ending, just a better one. Maybe it gets back to the near impossibility of writing a satisfying ending, but this one felt like a cop-out. I’m 44 if that data is useful for your theory.

  36. Ken Hanke

    I’m 44 if that data is useful for your theory.

    No, I gave that up. I think it’s strictly a matter of temperament.

    Or the argument that it was the only one possible. Or the argument that downbeat endings have become so de rigueur for indie films that somehow the cliched happy ending that damaged so many films back in the 40s (when the studios used to insist upon them) has now become the fresher, more original choice.

    Well, I wouldn’t make an across-the-board claim, but I would like some examples of 1940s films with mandated happy endings that were damaged by them.

  37. Todd T

    Although in some cases, the mandated ending wasn’t exactly “happpy” but rather less searingly bleak.

  38. Ken Hanke

    Well, I can’t argue Brighton Rock or Woman in the Window because I’ve never seen them. Gilda I suppose I’d concede, but it’s never bothered me, nor was I aware it was grafted on by the studio against the filmmakers’ wishes. But Nightmare Alley? You call that a happy ending? Really? At the same time — and I know I didn’t specify genre — four noirs? Nothing a little closer to the type of film that Safety Not Guaranteed is?

  39. Ken Hanke

    Although in some cases, the mandated ending wasn’t exactly “happpy” but rather less searingly bleak.

    This seems to have been in moderation hell when I responded. The question in my mind is whether or not all of these movies actually had a bleaker ending lined up? (Also, were these studio mandated or censor mandated?) Still, I don’t see how these films — or even Young Adult, which was pretty bleak for its entire length — actually relate to a film like Safety Not Guaranteed. However, it was less the fact that it didn’t go for an unhappy ending — which I maintain would have been utterly at odds with the rest of the film — but that it dared to follow through (more or less) on its fanciful premise.

  40. Big Al

    Since you seem to be informally collecting data on age/group relationships in film criticism, I am 43 and liked the ending, but was actually expecting it to be more nuanced, like not actually seeing the time machine but knowing it existed, or that if it didn’t, that it really didn’t matter. I hope that is useful.

  41. I loved the first two acts, and liked the third with some slight reservations.

    It is pretty much APRIL LUDGATE: TIME TRAVELER, but that’s what I wanted it to be.

  42. Ken Hanke

    Being blissfully ignorant of her TV career — and justfiably so since no one pays me to review TV — I couldn’t say. What I find interesting is that the only reason I love the first two acts is because of the frequently bitched about third one. Without that ending, this would be nowhere near my top three of the year.

  43. Jeremy Dylan


    I liked the resolution of the ‘Does the time travel work?’ question, I just wasn’t clear on the Kristen Bell character. Was Duplass nuts or lying or had he saved her life via time travel?

  44. Ken Hanke

    Well, the last makes sense within the confines of the time travel idea. Though all in all, the Kristen Bell character is more necessary for the epiphany of Aubrey Plaza’s character about herself and the way she thinks of Duplass herself — and how wrong she is, because she glimpses her own shallowness in Bell.

  45. Jeremy Dylan

    I agree with that, I just think the confrontation between Plaza and Duplass was very murky and left me with the impression that Duplass was a little nuts, and the fact that the time machine works didn’t clear it up any for me.

  46. Ken Hanke

    I don’t think the ending works if that’s cleared up. She has to get on that boat and he has to ask her to strictly on faith — her faith that he’s not just nuts and his that the only thing she lied about was the magazine.

  47. I watched this last night and thought it was excellent. My faith is restored in Duplassdom.

    I guess my take on the recent discussion is that Plaza didn’t find a note in the tin box so nothing was changed in the past. I think that Duplass was now firmly focusing on the present (his relationship with Plaza).

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