Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a magazine where she feels underappreciated, but then she has gone through life in a downtrodden state of mind, not helped by the loss of her mother when she was fourteen years old. Even when she tries to get a job to supplement her meagre income she fails becasue of her unintended air of not caring, so it's back to putting toilet rolls into the staff conveniences for Darius until one day when her boss (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is seeking a new story to win over the reading public. A classified ad has been spotted in a newspaper which asked for a candidate to accompany the advertiser on a time travel trip; it could be nothing, but it could be worth investigating...
The idea for Safety Not Guaranteed came from a real life ad, requesting a companion for a potentially dangerous time trip: this became an inevitable internet meme until it was revealed as a joke placed by one of the staff, so that was essentially what you were dealing with here, an indie movie spawned by an internet meme. If that broadcast a clarion call to hipsters across the globe, so be it, being that sort of work, but if you were not too cool for school would this hold any appeal? For one thing it offered a lead role for Aubrey Plaza who had gathered a following thanks to her work in comedy, most high profile as the terminally unimpressed April on hit sitcom Parks and Recreation.
Therefore it was not so much of a stretch to see her playing nearly the same type of character here, except Darius (who among other reasons may have been miserable due to the fact she's called Darius) had hidden emotional depths which surfaced occasionally on her excursion with two colleagues out into a town where the ad had been placed. Those colleagues are the opportunistic Jeff (Jake Johnson, no stranger to sitcom success himself) and nerdy Arnau (Karan Soni), another intern. It is Jeff's idea to pursue this story, mainly so that he can track down an old high school sweetheart, Liz (Jenica Bergere) and relive his glory days, except wouldn't you know it maybe things have moved on and he is pathetically trying to grasp a past now out of reach.
Anyway, aside from that subplot we were mostly interested in Darius's endeavours to get to know the advertiser and possible time traveller who turns out be the secretive and paranoid Kenneth (Mark Duplass, erstwhile indie director too). This is where the flimsiness of the premise began to expose itself and the whole affair unravelled since at some point Derek Connolly's script would have to reveal whether this character was deluded or a charlatan or in fact the real deal, and had actually worked out how to travel through the decades where so many before him had failed. Whichever way the plot fell, it was going to be disappointing to somebody, but once Darius gets to know Kenneth he seems sincere enough, if a shade too intense to be entirely healthy.
Plus he has a false ear for some reason, but Darius gets to like this misfit and the more he trains her up as his cohort the more she finds herself falling for him. As she is something of a misfit herself, you can understand her attraction, but she still has a job to do and that creates a compromise, though the film was at its best when it just gave Plaza lines to deadpan and sit around having absurd conversations. What it wasn't was particularly hilarious, and reaching out more to those in the audience who were dissatisfied with their lot in life and fantasising about finding a way out of their sullen predicament and into a brighter future - or past, when you felt things were better. Both Kenneth and Darius have solid grounds for leaving the present behind, prompted by heartache and in her case genuine tragedy she feels responsible for, but the film never consolidates this fertile area for drama with the more nihilistic Hot Tub Time Machine runarounds that it keeps threatening to lapse into, notably in the boorish Jeff storyline. It's OK, but unconvincing. Twee music by Ryan Miller.