The central premise to Safety Not Guaranteed is refreshingly different. A trio of young journalists investigate an excerpt published in a small town newspaper. The posting inquires on the possibility of time travel. From there, the picture attempts to reconcile the journalists’ cynicism as they face their own internal struggles. Darius (Aubrey Plaza) lost her mother. Jeff (Jake Johnson) took the assignment as a means of reigniting a relationship with an old flame. Arnau (Karan Soni) contends with his social awkwardness. And Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the man who wrote the ad, suffers from an extensive tale of woe. But none of this really matters. Despite a premise worth delving into, writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow simply adopt the framework of virtually every starling Sundance picture, thereupon creating a vast conglomeration of cliché indie tropes that achieves nothing.
Safety Not Guaranteed is best described as frustrating. A complete misfire and waste of potential, the picture’s premise aspires for something more. But it never ceases to dismay. The central issue stems from its writing, whereupon it utilizes two diverging narrative threads to make a point about the nature of lost youth and opportunity. Fine points to make if there were a level of narrative insight or directorial finesse associated to realizing the idea. We have shell characters that are so clearly defined by notes of sentimentality or remorse. There’s simply no room for one or the other.
What the film ends up doing is fragmenting its thoughts and undercutting its fleeting sincerity with crassness. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? Through most of Safety Not Guaranteed, there are attempts at comedy that fall flat, only to oddly transition to scenes of heavy emotional weight. The jarring transitions in writing make it incredibly difficult to embrace the film on any level, preventing me from acknowledging its potential dramatic or comedic merits.
Aubrey Plaza, who I enjoy on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, comes out of the film unscathed. She’s playing a role similar to her April Ludgate character on the show and navigates through the rocky terrain with her usual deadpan nonchalance. All the other actors succumb to the problems of the hackneyed writing and sloppy direction. Safety Not Guaranteed’s ending does a particularly extraordinary job of contradicting most of its paper thin ideas. Is it worth going back in time? The film’s response throughout most of its runtime would be no. But with so many scenes of unearned sentimentality, it’s hard to believe that its special-effects disaster of an ending is its greatest offense.