- - Thursday, June 14, 2012

‘Safety Not Guaranteed” comes with a warning label for a title: It need not have bothered. This gentle sci-fi romantic comedy is as harmless as they come.

Director Colin Trevorrow’s thin but sometimes charming film clocks in at just 85 minutes, but still feels slightly padded — more like an extended television episode than a full-fledged feature.

The story starts when Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), a cynical magazine writer, drags two interns on an out of town trip to report a sneering story inspired by a classified ad: The ad’s author says he’s going on a time-travel adventure, and he’s looking for a partner.

Jeff plans to spend most of the trip seducing a high school flame, so one of his interns, a young woman named Darius (Aubrey Plaza), ends up doing most of the work. The other, dweeby Arnau (Karan Soni), is a science major who has no evident interest in journalism and tags along for no apparent reason other than sitting on the sidelines and playing with his computer.

Darius tracks down Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the ad’s paranoid, free-spirited author, and convinces him that she wants to be his partner — but doesn’t tell him about the article. He slowly lets her in on his plans, and a subtle romance blooms.

Is Kenneth a nut or is his time-machine real? Mr. Trevorrow dangles the question in front of the audience until the very end but makes little effort to generate suspense.

The story, by Derek Connolly, is plagued by problems of plausibility and focus: What magazine writer takes two interns on a road trip? What magazine hires an intern who has neither experience nor interest in journalism? For that matter, why is Arnau even in the movie? A subplot revolving around Jeff’s plans to help him find young women to hook up with is almost entirely unrelated to the main plot.

Plot clearly isn’t the point here — tone is. With its mashup of early Wes Anderson-style indie-film quirk and Charlie Kauffman-esque extranormal hijinks, this time-travel love story often feels more like it’s recycling the past than longing for it. When it works, it’s because Mr. Duplass and Miss Plaza make such a sweet oddball pair.

Most of the credit goes to Miss Plaza, who sticks with the deadpan delivery she’s used to such great effect in numerous comic supporting roles. As Kenneth, Mr. Duplass is sufficiently weird as the scruffy sad sack, but remains distant and unknowable. The only reason to care for him is because Darius so obviously does.

Their romance is cute, but cute isn’t enough to carry a movie. As much as the movie’s characters mull over the possibility of going back in time to get things right, I wished the filmmakers had taken the care to do the same.

★★½

TITLE: “Safety Not Guaranteed”

CREDITS: Directed by Colin Trevorrow, screenplay by Derek Connolly

RATING: R for language

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

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