Whenever we offer up our heart to someone, show them our vulnerability, we need to remember the title of this film. ‘Safety Not Guaranteed.’

Safety Not Guaranteed.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012).
Photo by John Lester via Flickr

In my self-proclaimed (not earned) expert opinion, Safety Not Guaranteed is one of the best indie comedies to come out in the last decade. I was stoked when I saw it was back on Netflix, and I hope you all give it a try. The film starts with magazine interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) joining reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) on a story in a cold coastal town in Washington. Their plan? To scoop a story by answering a classified ad. 

The ad reads: “WANTED: Someone 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. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”

They don’t know exactly what they will find when they meet the man who placed the ad. Is it a prank, or does he really believe he can build a time machine? It becomes clear he’s not joking when he shoos Jeff away because he sees right through his phony interest. This leaves the team with what was their best option all along, sending Darius in undercover. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) ultimately agrees to go back in time with Darius.

Sincerity vs Honesty

We want chemistry in a partner.
Sincerity is alluring, but honesty is binding.

After Darius and Kenneth’s first meeting, the group is waiting for him to call, and Jeff tells her not to worry, “I’m sure your weird mojo clicked with his weird mojo.” As her dad says earlier in the film, she’s in a funk. “[She’s] sad… It’s like there’s a cloud following [her].” And one of the reasons Kenneth denied Jeff was because he “[doesn’t] know pain; [he doesn’t] know regret.” When Darius and Kenneth first interact, we can see the antisocial Darius can quickly connect with him by embracing the darkness as it were. She’s able to seem sincere, and in a way, she is sincere.

As their relationship grows, she denies her impulse to make up stories and opts to be genuine with Kenneth. She shares real parts of her life with him, things I think we can assume she hasn’t told anyone else. At this point Kenneth says he thinks he can trust her, to which she responds, “Good. You should.” She was raw. She was vulnerable. But the truth is that she’s not being fully honest. He doesn’t know they met because her magazine is doing an article on him.

To stay true to the Rom-Com trope, the truth about their relationship starting on a lie doesn’t come out until after they both foster genuine feelings for each other. When he asks if she was making fun of him the whole time, she tells him, “I lied about the story, but everything else was real. Ok? That was really me.” The audience knows this to be true because of all the sincere moments they shared together, even in the absence of full honesty.

“I lied about the story, but everything else was real. Ok? That was really me.”

The flip side to this is that Kenneth’s sincerity is part of what Darius finds attractive about him. But Kenneth’s sincerity comes with a grain of salt, because if he truly believes he can build a time machine, then he’s genuinely crazy, right? Well, even if it’s a silly belief, Darius still finds it endearing. She begins to trust him, which is hard for her as her motto is, “Expect the worst.”

It’s not until after she even considers that he might be able to time travel, do details arise that make Kenneth seem less than honest. His explanation for the lie he’s caught in is that their time traveling mission must’ve been successful and therefore altered the present. In the end, it comes down to the question he asks her in the final scene, “Do you trust me?”

Finding a Partner

Woman places ring on spouse's finger.
Kenneth wants someone to go back in time with. The rest of us want someone to go forward in time with, day by day.

As it turns out, finding a partner to travel through time with (remember that’s how this all began, his ad seeking a partner) is the perfect metaphor for finding a life partner. Just to solidify this theory, I’ll cite that the last phrase said in the film is “I do,” the same words we use when making a marital vow. I mean, what did you think all that trust-building was really about?

How does Kenneth vet Darius as a viable “partner?” As the previous section shows, it was all about building trust. They were sincere with each other. Sincerity was step one in being considered, something Jeff couldn’t accomplish. Then they shared the intimate details of their lives. They told each other their insecurities and shared their shame until trust was fully formed. Subsequently, romantic feelings emerged from this. Some might say they grew to love each other. Wait, I don’t remember, was I describing vetting a time travel partner or dating? You see what I mean.

If I’m not being clear enough with the parallels here, I’d like to return to the last frame of dialogue. In this quote, Kenneth is describing why he sought out a partner to time travel with. Tell me if it doesn’t match our desire for a romantic partner to spend our life with.

Kenneth: “To go it alone, or to go with a partner. When you choose a partner, you have to have compromises, sacrifices, but it’s the price you pay. Do I want to follow my every whim and desire as I make my way through time and space? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, do I need someone when I’m doubting myself, and I’m insecure, and my heart’s failing me? Do I need someone who, when the heat gets hot, has my back?” 

Darius: “So, do you?” 

Kenneth: “I do.”

Safety Not Guaranteed shows us the process of finding a spouse under the guise of investigating a kooky time travel guy. It’s really just about finding someone you have chemistry with. It’s about lowering your defenses, no matter how fortified they may be. It’s about love. And even though it’s a romantic story, if you’re not looking at all the parallels, you may miss the full gravitas of the message.

“I’m sure your weird mojo clicked with his weird mojo.”

There’s so much to say about this movie. It has some great laughs and heart-warming moments. Jake Johnson actually has quite a complex character in Jeff, and his subplot and character development add an extra layer of depth to the film. If you like Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation you’ll enjoy her in this. She pretty much plays the characters the same, and she even falls for a dorky, seemingly childish guy, just like Andy.

If you know the movie and want to discuss it further, I’m happy to get a conversation rolling in the comments. If you haven’t seen it, and have made it this far into the article, then I’m just going to stop writing so you can go watch it now on Netflix.