Gertrude Stein was right about Oakland, Calif., when she famously said, “There is no there there.” The same can be said about filmmakers Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s venture, “Safety Not Guaranteed.” 

The premise is simple:  A man places an ad in a Seattle paper looking for a companion willing to accompany him on a journey back in time via his time travel machine. You could do a lot with that given the right cast.

But here we are in 2012 and saddled with Mark Duplass, an actor with absolutely all the gravitas of a stock clerk in a Seattle 7-Eleven store, which is what he plays in the film. Nice touch.

Duplass and his brother are the producers of this venture, and they are to be applauded for their efforts to contribute to the exploding bounty of independent films in America. What would we do without such pilgrims? We’d have no film festivals at all. But for heaven’s sake, hire an actor who doesn’t have a frown tattooed on his face. Think about how much fun this would have been with John Malkovitch. I’m just saying.

There are a couple of good actors in the movie, not great ones, but watchable. We meet a young guy named Jake M. Johnson, who in the ’40s and ’50s would have been playing all the roles John Garfield or Richard Conte turned down. Here, Johnson plays Jeff, a Seattle magazine writer who is assigned to track down the man in the ad. He is told he can take two of the interns. “Okay, I’ll take the lesbian and the Indian.” He’s referring to Darius (Aubrey Plaza, who is definitely not a lesbian — not that there’s anything wrong with that — just a space-drifting pencil chewer, who misses her dead mother and is looking for a place in the sun that won’t require too much effort.) The Indian is Arnau (Karan Soni) saddled with a character that contributes nothing.

Darius goes along for the road trip knowing that Jeff is using her as bait to snare the elusive time traveler. But Seattle is so boring, she agrees to go undercover, stick herself in the time traveler’s life and expose the whole thing as a sitcom schtick. Really?

Jeff, our senior writer, only takes the job to track down an old girlfriend he lost in high school (a very nice Jenica Bergere) whom he thinks is still the prom queen. She isn’t, but her new crown is better.
Not long into the movie we meet the time traveler, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and it only takes a few minutes to know that we are now in Boy-Meets-Girl land, and we know where that takes us.

You will be treated to some jarring moments designed to shake us out of our lethargy. Kenneth takes Darius along on an armed raid of a government research lab, so that he can snatch up some essential time machine parts. Nothing says love like involving your sweetie in a federal rap. 

We soon discover that Kenneth’s paranoia is real, there are agents following him, and in the end they will chase our lovers through a swamp to a boat landing where . . .

I’m going to leave you here, dear viewer, suspended in the middle of this mishegoss, so that you can enjoy, or not, the surprise ending. Satisfaction Not Guaranteed.

I will say that Plaza, whom many of you will recognize from “Parks and Recreation,” has a future if she will resist relying on those beautiful eyes. The child has talent.

Johnson will soon be a detective on the next hot cop show, and I have great faith in the future of Bergere’s career. It is my opinion that this might have been a much better and funnier movie if they had cast Malkovitch and Jane Adams (Tanya on HBO”s “Hung”) in the leads. I’m just saying.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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