This film could have devolved into little more than a freak show.
But in "Safety Not Guaranteed," director Colin Trevorrow delivers a poignant comedy about an eccentric with a self-professed knack for time travel. He somehow extracts genuine emotion from of a man stuck in adolescence — who at first seems more buffoonish than endearing.
Kenneth, played by mumblecore icon Mark Duplass, puts out an ad in a Seattle magazine, looking for a partner in his time-travel escapades. In doing so, he strikes the interest of a reporter (Jake Johnson) who drags along a pair of interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) to get the scoop on the apparent loon.
Jeff, the reporter, is far more interested in hooking up with an ex-fling, though, passing off most of his assignment to Plaza, who plays an extension of her droll and deadpan character on "Parks and Recreation."
Though on familiar terrain, Plaza flashes unique acting chops and falls into an easy chemistry with Duplass, even as he’s parading around in Rambo gear and pontificating about his history with Star Wars figurines — and slowly revealing why he must travel back in time.
In the best scene of the film, the pair discusses how a particular song can produce a memory both transcendent and hollow at the same time. Such an exchange embodies the arc of the film, as each character is stuck in the past, longing for a time when happiness seemed tangible rather than cruelly out of reach.
Plaza’s Darius can’t shake the guilt of her last fateful telephone conversation before her mother’s death, and Kenneth can’t get over the loss of the lone woman who paid him any kind of attention.
What follows is a brisk and charming journey that occasionally becomes a bit too quirky for its own good (a similar plight that hampered "Little Miss Sunshine," which shares the same producers).
Time travel emerges as a vehicle to right previous wrongs and serves as the backdrop to the burgeoning relationship between our two oddball protagonists. In focusing on the mutual infatuation between the pair, rather than the X’s and O’s of time travel, it masks some of the logical deficiencies in Trevorrow’s feature film debut.
An unearned ending unfortunately keeps the film from greatness, contradicting the foundation of the story in favor of a crowd pleaser. Still, that misstep can hardly erase the solid and occasionally surprising 90 minutes that precedes it — a welcome entry in a time-travel genre desperate for a fresh blueprint.
‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ — 3 out of 4 stars
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Kristen Bell and Jeff Garlin
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Rated: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 94 minutes