I didn’t have high expectations for Colin Trevorrow’s time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed and so I was pleased when those expectations were modestly surpassed. The reason for my low expectations was the simple fact that I’m not a fan of current American “indie” films. They’re too often meandering, muddled, sloppy, and pretentious.
Safety Not Guaranteed is none of these things. It’s a high-spirited buddy comedy with a light dose of pathos and introspection. It’s filmed with some level of confidence and its improvisational conversations don’t seem like half-developed thoughts mumbled by poor actors. In short, this film lacked most of the mumblecore qualities that bother me so much.
In it, Parks and Recreation’s Audrey Plaza stars as Darius, an intern at a Seattle magazine who is sent to investigate a time travel ad along with a hedonistic journalist, Jeff, (Jake Johnson) and a fellow intern (Karan Soni). The ad, inspired by a real advertistment from 1997, 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.”
After arriving in the community where the ad was printed, Jeff sends Darius to investigate the ad so he can reconnect and presumably sleep with an old flame. After staking out the P.O. box the ad was posted from, Darius discovers the writer of the ad, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an eccentric grocery store clerk who believes the government is after him for unlocking time travel. Suffice to say, Darius charms her way into Kenneth’s good graces, and he chooses her as his partner in time travel.
There are parallel narratives to the film that not so subtly mirror each other’s thematic preoccupations. One is the primary narrative about Darius and Kenneth prepping to time travel. Conventionally, a subtle romance blossoms between Darius and Kenneth. Both are outsiders, peculiar people troubled by their past failures. They bond through the preposterous exercise regiment that Kenneth deems necessary to prepare them for time travel and quiet discussions about their pasts, like an interesting chat about how recollecting music from the past evokes the emptiness of the present.
Plaza plays Darius like a cross between a high school Goth girl and a deer caught in the headlights. She’s sarcastic and quiet and sometimes tries so frustratingly hard to appear aloof. At other times, she seems paralyzed from expressing emotion, just starring blankly with her wide-eyes as Duplass prattles on. But however much her character seems a typical indie creation, she gels well with Duplass’s Kenneth, who is a character full of affection.
Duplass is impressive in this part. I haven’t been a fan of Duplass in past films like Humpday, but here he really steals the show. He’s quirky and charismatic and strangely convincing as a well-meaning crackpot. He also sells the emotion of the character and makes him far more than another forcibly quirky indie creation. He has great chemistry with Plaza and the scenes they share are the highlights of the film.
It’s during the second narrative that the film falters, where Jake Johnson’s Jeff reconnects with an old high school girlfriend and realizes the emptiness of his life choices. Johnson can be amusing at times, but his cocky, egocentric blowhard gets old fast, and the amount of time the film devotes to him is strange for such a short film. While Jeff’s inclusion in the film is necessary to provide a parallel to Kenneth’s quest for redemption, the parallels are too overstated. As well, Jeff’s arc is all too predicable and underwritten. His transformation isn’t earned, nor is it inspired in the least.
Here is another independent film that ultimately tells a predictable story. I always balk when people comment on the conventionality of mainstream American cinema, and then proceed to point to American indies for evidence of originality. Both modes of filmmaking are consumed by convention. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, if the film doesn’t have pretenses of originality, as is the case with Safety Not Guaranteed.
Safety Not Guaranteed may not be overly original, but it is pleasant and satisfying. It has modest ambitions and fulfills the promises of the story. Perhaps most satisfyingly, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end to its story, with a clear narrative throughline. It doesn’t meander. It doesn’t waste time. It seeks to entertain and accomplishes just that.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Directed by Colin Trevorrow; written by Derek Connolly; starring Audrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, and Jenica Bergere.
6 out of 10
Safety Not Guaranteed is currently playing at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon.