Substituting charm, and sometimes quirk, for special effects, the no-budget time-travel caper Safety Not Guaranteed squeaks by on goodwill and guarded expectations. Aubrey Plaza plays a Seattle magazine intern whose interest is piqued by a classified ad looking for a time-travel partner. “This is not a joke,” it reads. “Bring your own weapons.” (The ad duplicates an Internet-famous real-life counterpart.) Although naturally skeptical—this is Aubrey Plaza, after all, to whom eye-rolling comes as naturally as breathing—Plaza sees a chance to land her first story, and she sets out to track down the person who placed the ad, but her trip is hijacked by a staff writer (Jake Johnson) whose old flame happens to live in the small town where the ad originated.
As expected, the would-be time-traveler turns out to be a trifle unbalanced, but fortunately (at least for meet-cute purposes), he comes not in the form of a filthy basement-dweller, but the more attractive shape of Mark Duplass, whose implausible obsession has its roots in past tragedy. He’s also trying to reunite with a long-lost love, although in his case, it’s a little more complicated than simply looking her up.
In Plaza and Duplass, director Colin Trevorrow has cast actors whose familiar personae are a few degrees off from their characters’, resulting in some mild but not uncomfortable (or overly challenging) stretching. Duplass gets to mix a pinch of crazy into his winning sincerity, and the perpetual skeptic Plaza edges gradually toward belief as she’s won over by Duplass’ manic dedication to his cause. While the film doesn’t finally shy away from revealing whether Duplass is a mad genius or simply a loon, it downplays the question in favor of playing out the dynamics between characters (which is to say, Primer this is not).
In spite of the danger hinted at by the movie’s title, Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly don’t take many risks; strip away the time travel, which is easy enough, and what’s left is a winsome but insubstantial romance, worth heading up the block for, but not fracturing the laws of space-time. It’s a tribute to Plaza and Duplass that they’re able to make such slight material resonate at all, let alone with the poignancy they occasionally find.