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‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ offers comedy with more serious themes

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An indie comedy as wonderful as “Safety Not Guaranteed” can seem as easy to write off as a foolproof recipe for chocolaty fudge brownies. Measure, stir, bake and voila, you have an instantly gooey melt-in-your-mouth treat.

That sums up the feeling left by “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a hip, smart and modestly budgeted mumblecore film. Talky but unpretentious, casually realistic, with semi-improvised dialogue and low-tech production, it is honest without seeming pretentious.

Mark Duplass, one of the film’s producers, portrays an almost mad scientist in the Pacific Northwest. His reclusive and paranoid character, Kenneth, has allegedly invented and built a time machine that successfully transported him to the recent past.

Kenneth places an anonymous advertisement for a time-traveling companion. “Must bring your own weapons,” the ad says. “Safety not guaranteed.”

The ad comes to the attention of the editors of Seattle magazine, where cynical deadpan Darius (Aubrey Plaza) interns. One of her glamorous tasks is changing toilet paper rolls.

When Darius’ obnoxiously brash boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson), decides that doing a piece on the time traveler might make for a hilarious magazine article, he enlists Darius and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), to come with him to Ocean View, where the P.O Box address for the ad is listed. Arnau is a shy, soft-spoken biology student, interning at the magazine to fluff up his resume.

It turns out Jeff has ulterior motives to visiting Ocean View — to look up and hopefully hook up with his old high school flame, Liz (Jenica Bergere). Meanwhile Darius and Arnau stake out the post office where Kenneth picks up his mail. When he finally shows up, they follow him to a grocery store where he stocks canned goods.

Jeff poses as “companion hopeful number one” and preens and prances like a stale Joel McHale, and sets off Kenneth’s alarms.
Darius volunteers as “companion hopeful number two” and wins Kenneth over with a shrewd mixture of sarcasm, as the two size each other up with talk about how prepared they are to face the supposed dangers of time travel.

Kenneth, Darius finds, is convinced that he is being tracked by government agents. Once he chooses Darius as his traveling companion, training exercises begin. Mechanical blueprints and sessions on karate and firearms in preparation for a potentially dangerous time-travelling adventure keep the audience guessing at the authenticity of Kenneth’s time-travel claims.
The legitimacy of time travel serves more as a diving board for the characters’ stories, rather than the central point of the film. More important are the characters’ pasts. Kenneth gradually reveals the heart-wrenching complexity behind his strangeness, a profundity that is glimpsed frequently with the film’s themes of control and overcoming the past.

The training sessions and breaking into high-tech science labs and the paranoia that the government is tracking Kenneth and Darius’ every movement, is surface to the underlying theme about the fading dreams of those hopeful 20- and 30-somethings not swept up in the high-tech and financial rush to live the “American Dream.” Those people stuck in limbo, looking back to better times as they fumble their way through a disparaging and miserly culture of diminished opportunities.

Though the movie has many funny and delightful moments, “Safety Not Guaranteed” shouldn’t be taken as a full-fledged comedy. The realistic dialogue includes many witty lines, cheeky car chases and Star Wars references, but these moments act more as an accessory to a very somber, yet uplifting film. The wonderful cast and excellent writing make “Safety Not Guaranteed” a fine example of gooey brownie movie magic.

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