Guaranteed to Please

This modest time-travel story is skillful and heartfelt

Sardonic like its heroine but, at heart, a sweetie, the fetching new comedy Safety Not Guaranteed came through the Sundance Film Festival where it won the screenwriting award. The film is based on a classified ad that ran in Backwoods Home magazine in the 1990s and then, years later, thanks to the Internet, acquired a second, viral life for itself: “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. … You’ll get paid after we get back.”

You can do a lot with that premise. Making their feature debuts, screenwriter Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow—former Saturday Night Live interns—set up their version of events as a progression from cynical, dead-end expectations to a wild, optimistic leap of faith.

Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation plays Darius, whose character name evokes the MTV series heroine Daria and whose demeanor suggests the same. She and a fellow low-level Seattle magazine staffer (Karan Soni) accompany their preening boss (Jake Johnson) to chase down the man (Mark Duplass, who’s everywhere these days) who placed the bizarre personals ad in care of a rural Washington post-office box.

What do they find when they get to Ocean View, Wash.? They find a twitchy but resourceful loner with big ideas and a willingness to break a few laws. He’s the sort of fellow Tom Waits wrote about when he wrote “What’s He Building in There?”

The characters also find romantic fulfillment of an intriguingly varied sort. The boss is interested in the assignment only because it puts him in proximity with his first love, whom he hasn’t seen for decades. And as she enters the good graces of Kenneth (Duplass), for the sake of the story, Darius starts falling for her subject.

The movie isn’t a high-energy, down-your-throat kind of experience; it fills its trim 87-minute running time with a relaxed and often witty eye for the telling detail, as when Darius questions co-worker Arnau (Soni) about the flame decals on his laptop, or when Kenneth’s rationale for a time-travel experiment turns out to be something other than advertised. You may buy the ending or not. The filmmakers certainly do, which helps. The film is modest but skillful and heartfelt, spiced just so by Plaza and company.

Safety Not Guaranteed (R) ★★★☆☆

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