To the best of my awareness Safety Not Guaranteed is the first – and thus far only – film to take a real classiﬁed ad as its inspiration.
Although ‘real’ might not be the right word. The ad was ﬁller for a magazine, but it was well written filler; it had a good hook, simple concept, deadpan delivery.
The internet caught onto it and loved it. In tone and conceit the ﬁlm is true to the ad’s spirit, but well written it is not. The story — well, ‘story’ is probably too strong a word, but it will serve — focuses on Darius (played by the Queen of Deadpan: Aubrey Plaza), an intern at a magazine where she’s mostly ill-used. Her sort-of superior Jeff (Jake Johnson) pitches an idea for a piece based on a classiﬁed ad he’s seen, which reads: ‘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.’
Jeff is given leeway to chase down whoever wrote it, so he ropes in Darius and shy retiring intern Arnau (Karan Soni), and goes on the hunt. What follows is far too lacking in plot or character to be worth transcribing. There are no credible hurdles for these characters to overcome, no relationships that ring true, no arc on which they’re taken. On a script level the ﬁlm is inert.
Plaza, although interesting to watch, is one-note in the role of Darius (a name which I can’t help but associate with the Persian King, circa 550BC. When I ﬁrst heard someone call her name, which wasn’t until the halfway point, I thought it was a code name… ). Her perpetually deadpan delivery works well in moderation, ideally as part of an ensemble; here she’s the focus – so not so much with the moderation and the ensemble. As for the others: Johnson is likeable as Jeff, only he probably shouldn’t be, Soni is wooden rather than his true aim: emotionless, and Mark Duplass — who plays the possibly doolally writer of the ad — is lacklustre; giving off the impression that he’s in the ﬁlm as a favour to the director, ﬁrst timer Colin Trevorrow.
Writer Derek Connolly, also a ﬁrst timer, hints at interesting subject matter, raising themes of loneliness and belonging, only to meander around them in his conclusion-less script. Subplots are dropped or forgotten, and one particularly odd sequence involving a prosthetic was seemingly included just to pad out the running time. When Arnau is hastily given a truncated subplot of his own during the last third it, in essence, wraps up with the messages ‘Don’t be yourself!’ and ‘Peer pressure. It works!’
Safety Not Guaranteed is a comedy. I only knows this because I’ve seen Trevorrow say as much. What the ﬁlm actually aims for is generic-quirky-indie. A hodgepodge of a word (and genre), but the right one. It’s a shame it couldn’t aspire to more.
Safety Not Guaranteed film review by Tom Charles