Safety Not Guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Mark Duplass, Karan Soni, Mary Lynn Rajskub
R for language including some sexual references
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On the surface, this indie dramedy may seem like a disaster waiting to happen. A questionably sane man seeks help in his quest to travel back in time. Somehow, the end result of Safety Not Guaranteed is that it’s an endearing, quirky picture that explores the boundaries of sanity and belief and how sanity may be a byproduct of society pressure to conform to set ideals.
Trying to find a way in life, a young woman named Darius (Aubrey Plaza) lands a job working for a magazine bankrupt of good ideas. When one of the journalists (Jake Johnson) comes across a bizarre newspaper advertisement, he takes Darius and another intern (Karan Soni) out to the small town where the ad author (Mark Duplass) lives in an effort to expose his crazy ideas about time travel and the need for companionship.
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.” That text is used solely in the marketing campaign for the film and, upon first reading it, I was immediately intrigued. The trailer further cemented my desire to see the film, which sent me in with expectations that may have been too high. It’s a relief then that the film was as charming and engaging as I had initially expected.
Although Plaza reminds me of a young Jessica Harper (Suspiria), she has an offbeat personality that gives her character a great deal of appeal. Her performance fits the film well, though it seems a bit too starry-eyed to be realistic. Duplass is so familiar with the style of dead pan humor he employed in past efforts such as Humpday, that he naturally embodies the suspicious scientist Kenneth. There are plenty of moments where he could have let the sheer kookiness of the concept consume his performance, but he reigns in those tendencies and grows on the audience as he’s growing on Darius and her companions. In the end, it isn’t whether you believe he’s a successful time traveler, it’s whether you life him well enough to accept that he could be.
Johnson is a very likeable presence as the self-centered journalist whose choice of subjects brings him to the home town of his ex-girlfriend where his intentions are clearly not on the assignment for which he’s being paid. While the character is presented as a parallel to the budding romantic relationship between Darius and Kenneth, the disjointed nature of his attempts to find love don’t fit in perfectly with the story surrounding it. That doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t an engaging performer working at a high level of professionalism, it just means that Derek Connolly’s screenplay has a few hiccups.
Connolly explores the nature of sanity, by playing on our basic feelings of skepticism when something sticks out from societal norms. Here’s a man who has claimed to have travelled through time despite the scientific improbability of such an endeavor. As the film unfolds, Darius begins to question whether it’s the world around her that’s insane rather than Kenneth. From the pursuant FBI agents to the detailed machine plans they discover in Kenneth’s outdoor shed, everything begins to point towards his veracity. Then more events seem to counteract these beliefs and suspicion sets in. It’s a well constructed screenplay toying gentley with the audience’s observations. And you have to wait until the very end to discover whether Kenneth speaks the truth or is certifiably crazy.
First time helmer Colin Treverrow employs the traditional indie trappings, keeping the cinematography and scene design in service to a realitsic setting. The film paces itself well moving from questionable event to revelation smoothly and effectively. While there are no distinctive auteurist elements on display, competent filmmaking is a welcome thing when so many go overboard in their attempts to create something spectacularly original and end up coming off hollowly self-aggrandizing. Treverrow’s talent could be expanded upon, but for a first feature this is a superbly crafted debut.
Safety Not Guaranteed seems on the surface to be your typical indie film, focusing on the need for human interaction and exploring the nature of love and romance against an admittedly unusual backdrop. Whether you buy into the premise or not will determine whether you enjoy the film. I find it to be a lovely feature that may very well be the best-written film dealing with time travel in quite some time.
January 30, 2013