An unlikely pairing makes for a witty and joyous romance, with time travel.
"Wanted: Somebody 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." So reads the actual classified ad that inspired "Safety Not Guaranteed," a confident, quick-witted romantic comedy that is a giddy joy from start to finish.
The odd ad inspires Jeff (Jake Johnson), a Seattle magazine staffer, to find and write about its author. But because he's more interested in hooking up with an ex-girlfriend, the charmingly cocky Jeff drafts two interns, sardonic Darius ("Parks and Recreation" star Aubrey Plaza) and shy workaholic Arnau (Karan Soni).
The guy behind the bizarre ad is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a supermarket clerk who's endearing, painfully earnest and possibly insane. Darius poses as a time-travel candidate in order to breach Kenneth's defenses. Convinced the government is watching his Unabomber-style cabin, Kenneth freaks out at the mere sight of street repair crews: "Government employees!"
Director Colin Trevorrow and scripter Derek Connolly are cagey about how much Darius -- or viewers -- should trust Kenneth, while implicating us in the unethical lies she tells to get closer. The film celebrates the humor and humanity in each of the characters. It believes that underneath most cynics and oddballs there lurks a person worth getting to know.
Plaza and Duplass make a delightful pair. The thrust and parry of their banter is like a lively fencing match. "You ever face certain death?" he asks. "If it was so certain, I wouldn't be here, would I?" she counters. She's patronizing, but not for long. Soon he's training her in survivalist skills that look like activities from a really cool summer camp. Revealing the psychological baggage they carry about the past, each gradually reveals a touching vulnerability. When Kenneth sings Darius a brilliant ballad by alt-rocker Ryan Miller, we see there's more to the guy than his eccentric behavior and his fixation with turning back the clock. A sweet, unforced affection grows between them, threatened by her deceit and his daft conviction that he can take them back to 2001 to repair old mistakes. In a nice reversal on the usual indie romance formula, here it's the kooky guy who brings the grumpy girl to life.
The real focus of the film is the daring, dangerous adventure of romance, a risk at least as perilous as climbing aboard a whizzing homemade wayback machine. Ultimately, every character moves forward, getting unstuck from the past and advancing a step in understanding love. Like the time machine, "Safety Not Guaranteed" hums with a transporting rush of energy and enchantment. Satisfaction guaranteed.