Safety Not Guaranteed is Indie Gold

Sarah Robbins ’17
Contributing Writer 

First coming to life at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, Safety Not Guaranteed hit theaters when screenwriter Derek Connolly received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Written in response to a real ad published in a 1997 issue of Backwoods Home Magazine, Safety Not Guaranteed is a story of a man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who publishes an ad asking for a partner to travel back in time with him on his homemade time machine. The actual ad reads:

“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. I have done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”

Not sure whether this is real, cynical, apathetic journalist Jeff (Jake Johnson) decides to pursue Kenneth to interview him for an article. Jeff is joined by interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni),  who proceed to fall into a series of adventures as they question the reality of time travel and the sanity of bored, middle-aged, grocery bagging Kenneth.

When Jeff hunts Kenneth down and requests to become his partner, Kenneth immediately sees through his overconfidence and self-absorbed nature and rejects him. Darius then steps up to the plate and the two hit it off immediately. Kenneth is struck by her honesty and mutual disillusionment with life, and Darius finds him an exciting change from her lousy internship lacking love or purpose.

Plaza steals the spotlight with a dazzlingly sarcastic yet heartfelt performance as she becomes more and more enamored with Kenneth and his odd ways. While Plaza has become typecast as a deadpan comedian since her role on Parks and Recreation, this role is suited perfectly for a movie attempting to be endearingly unambitious and abandon the shallowness of average society, portrayed in Jeff’s character. Each moment is effortlessly pushed forward by the growing chemistry and witty banter between Darius and Kenneth as their relationship grows. One perfect moment between them occurs when Kenneth asks, “Have you ever faced certain death?” to which Darius replies, “If it was so certain, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

While the reviews are slightly split – Rotten Tomatoes gives it an aggregated 91 percent, while Metacritic gives it a 72 percent – most of the negative reviews are standard for a low-income Sundance movie. Critic Phillip Concannon complains that Safety Not Guaranteed is “all half-baked ideas and frustrating loose ends,” while Robert Ebert argued that the “rather brilliant ending is completely satisfying while proving nothing.” I have to agree with Ebert here: the movie does meander in an aimless, somewhat random way, but all is brought together in an ending which gives just the boost of surprise energy the movie needed. I found myself waiting for disappointment, expecting a movie built on vague maybes to end on vague maybes, and yet it manages to finish with finality while still holding on to an abstractness that intrigues and endears so many viewers.

As critic Mick LaSalle says, “it’s original and odd in the best of ways,” and even negative reviewer Concannon admits that Plaza’s “deadpan lead performance is excellent.” At just above an hour, Safety Not Guaranteed is a refreshing look at the stranger side of life. The filmmakers keep you guessing till the end, and even once you’ve reached it you’ll find yourself puzzling over reality vs. fantasy through the credits.

Leave a Comment