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All words: Alan Pyke

Saftey Not Guaranteed lives at the opposite end of the big-screen comedy continuum from whatever the hell is on the front of Adam Sandler‘s checks these days.

There are laughs from dialogue. There are laughs from non-slapstick physicality. There are heartfelt moments in between that don’t leave you feeling like a sap if (when) they succeed in grabbing you. There’s even a little bit of honest-to-god acting going on. And you can sit through 90 minutes of off-kilter comedy, with sincere but not overbearing themes, and not once be expected to laugh at a fart.

It would be unfair to the movie, though, to hold up this low of a bar for too long. It’s not just better than the crap that’s competing for some other demographic’s dollar. It’s better than a lot of other indie comedies targeted at rudderless youngsters with more pop-culture acumen than marketable skills.

When a Seattle magazine sends Jeff (Jake Johnson) to write a story about the man who placed an ad seeking “someone to travel back in time with me” who could “bring your own weapons,” they don’t know that Jeff’s also trying to venture back a few decades. (His attempt to defy physics is less literal than the one Kenneth (Mark Duplass) advertised, but every bit as self-serving and escapist.)

The interns Jeff takes with him look like the youth he wants to revisit, but Darius (Aubrey Plaza, in the performance that should make her more than just That Girl From Parks & Rec) and Arnau (Karan Soni) are not living their tweens the way he thinks they should. Darius has a dead mother casting shadows over her youth, and Arnau is too busy planning his academic career to chase skirt and get in the proper kinds of trouble. Darius becomes Kenneth’s enthusiastic sidekick as she fleshes out the magazine story, and Arnau reluctantly plays wingman on Jeff’s earthbound time-travel. The story unfurls from there with a lovely combination of the predictable and the surprising, with excellent performances all around. Soni and Johnson nail their comic beats and their more limited emotional moments. Duplass, sort of a real-life version of The Office’s Jon Kracynski, dials down the in-command sass he brought to his role on The League in favor of vulnerable, starry-eyed sincerity. Plaza quietly steals every scene she gets.

Sure, there’s a plot hole a few minutes before the credits roll, but having just one of those in a movie built (sort of) around time travel is laudable. And considering that it’s a very cute film that mnever becomes nauseating, that minor moment of stakes-raising illogic is forgivable. (If Rian Johnson’s LOOPER can manage a time-travel thriller plot with just one ‘j’accuse!’ moment from the continuity dork peanut gallery, that will merit Oscar consideration.)

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED looks and feels like a more austere Wes Anderson story, one where pastels and tracking shots are banned and the quirkiness budget has been slashed. Sunsets and visual realism replace color filters and fantastical setpieces, but the focus remains on damaged people trying to work through their misery in ways that make us laugh.

Interesting, too, to contemplate your own amusement as you realize this is a movie about the people who got laughed at in childhood, and those who did the laughing. The characters are scarred by their (mostly unconscious) youthful decisions over which team to play for in the schoolyard. Kenneth’s entire worldview seems to be predicated on the suspicion that everyone is still laughing at him, and his time-travelling quest is all about reclaiming the one person who was actually nice to him. Darius is better equipped to push back on the cool kids – “You’re dangling my vagina out there like bait,” she tells Jeff early on – but she is also permanently on guard. Jeff and others are the adult version of the cool kids, but he’s trying and failing to be content with a life he can only describe as a list of possessions.

Jeff and Darius and Kenneth are all struggling to cope with the uncomfortable relentlessness of time, moving them all further away from when they remember being happy. Their struggles take opposite shapes. Kenneth remembers the songs and people that populated a particular memory of happiness, and refuses to just move on in search of another: “You can’t just go find that stuff again.” Instead, you build a machine to take you back to that one perfect happiness recipe. Jeff, by contrast, goes looking for just the same stuff – for him, that means young women – that made his remembered youth so perfect. But if their tactics differ, their strategies are the same: both men refuse to move forward from their sense of loss, and instead reach stubbornly, hopelessly backward.

Again, none of this stuff comes on heavy-handed. Director Colin Trevorrow is committed to showing and not telling. And he’s working from a rich, resonating and very funny screenplay whose only clear flaw is that the lone black character is more a mirror reflecting Kenneth’s goodness than a person. The results are nonetheless infectious. The film is rewarding well after the laughter’s faded, the lights have come stubbornly back up, and time has started to shove you away from this moment of happiness to go hunting for the next one.