Thursday, December 13, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Safety Not Guaranteed

I was not expecting much from Safety Not Guaranteed. In fact, I was downright wary of it (as I mostly am now with Sundance fodder). It looked like nothing more than one of those quirky indie comedies filled with cynicism/snark masking as charm that wins over Sundance audiences. But oh no, this tale of time travel plays it straight. Like, it's both Sundance-y in its rom-com sensibilities but also a science-fiction film about time travel. Not once is the time travel aspect of the film snickered at. And I appreciate that so much from a film of this ilk. When I heard about this movie, it sounded like nothing more than a film for TV actors to try their hand at a movie. Okay, let me step back a second because Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”), Mark Duplass (“The League”), and Jake Johnson (“New Girl”) have all starred in films (Duplass writes/directs his with his brother Jay), but nothing prepared me for actually liking all three of them here. I catch “New Girl” every now and then when I’m in the room while my wife watches it; the show is not my cup of tea, and Johnson’s enthusiasm is noticeable even if he does grate on me at times. Duplass is on “The League” – a hit and miss (mostly miss) show that so badly wants to be a raunchy version of “Seinfeld” – but he’s mostly forgettable on a forgettable show. Plaza is the only thing that attracted me to seeing this movie, and I’m glad I gave it a shot because I found myself liking the other two (especially Duplass) a lot. I was expecting Safety Not Guaranteed to be another Diablo Cody-like Indie film, but I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that it actually has more in common with Spielberg.

The film revolves around Seattle magazine deciding to do a story based on a wanted ad that reads:

"WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91, Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before."

Darius (Plaza) is an intern at the magazine and volunteers to tag along with writer Jeff (Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni). Darius takes the lead on the assignment and begins to buddy up with the writer of the want ad, Kenneth Calloway (Duplass), and wouldn’t you know it, she begins to believe that he really has figured out how to travel through time. She even begins to develop feelings for him, but I have to say that this evolves in a very earnest, natural way (my favorite moment between Darius and Kenneth is when they talk about who they’re going to visit and why – and Plaza explains that her favorite song is “Over the Rainbow” and the meaning behind it for her…that moment just killed me emotionally). Safety Not Guaranteed is a rare bird, indeed: an indie film that is just the right length; is original and oddball without being annoyingly quirky; and has a charming, understated humor to it because it cares for its characters. It all leads to an ending* that some would argue undercuts the previous 80 minutes of tragic backstory surrounding Kenneth and Darius, but I loved it. I’m glad the film took me where it did. 

Okay, so I didn’t think those things when the film started; the film starts slow but it works itself into being one of the more charming movies of 2012. The film begins with a voiceover by Plaza about why she’s so cynical and why she mopes around (mom died; out of work; lives with her dad), and when we realize that she’s actually talking to a potential employer in a job interview, I kind of groaned thinking that Derek Connolly’s script was going to be nothing more than the typical Aubrey Plaza performance, bouncing her around from moment to moment for the sole purpose of having her mopey personality clash with more upbeat people. I was also a little wary of the film when Johnson picks which interns he’s going to take with him on the assignment – he points to Plaza and Soni and says, “the lesbian and the Indian.” Ugh. I thought I was going to be in for a long movie of tired jokes like that. So, the film isn't perfect; the stuff with Soni is Exhibit A, and proof that at times Safety Not Guaranteed is the film I feared it would be not the film it reveals itself to be. But then something funny happened (and believe me I never thought I would say this): Mark Duplass showed up.

With MacGruber like vest and hair, Duplass plays Kenneth totally straight. Well, there are hints of mental illness and buried traumas (it’s why he relates to Darius); what we’re dealing with is a man who, like Plaza, has been dealt a pretty shitty hand and is just looking for something positive in life, something that he can attach some hope to. In one of the film’s best scenes, Kenneth serenades Darius on the beach with zither. This scene is so precious it hurts. But the two actors are able to pull off the scene with a joyous melancholy (the song is sad, but they certainly enjoy being there with each other), which is hard paradox for some actors to understand. In fact, much of the film is a seesaw of humor and tragedy as Kenneth and Darius spend many moments charming each other and connecting via their traumatic pasts. So back to the time machine (an apt metaphor for what’s really going on here): Kenneth’s plans – whether they’re real or not I will not spoil – to build a time machine could have been an excuse for Plaza and her co-workers to snark their way through the film, making themselves superior to this wacky backwoods loser that, pshaw, is building a time machine. But the actors, Connelly’s script, and Colin Trevorrow’s direction (according to the film’s production notes, Trevorrow wanted to obtain a Hal Ashby look and feel for the film) play it totally straight.

I cannot tell you what a relief that was. No cynicism, no snark. The film eschews indie clich├ęs (with the exception of some music choices and a moment of lens-flared camera work as Plaza takes a walk at dawn that looks like it came out of the liner notes for Generic Indie Band #1024) to tell a story about interesting characters that are about something rather than just putting quirky characters on screen and expecting us to totally enamored by their offbeat sensibilities.

And now the real reason to see the movie: Aubrey Plaza. I love Aubrey Plaza. There are few characters on television whose happiness I root for more than April Ludgate. Whether it’s the first time she admits she admires Leslie’s accomplishments and sees her as a role model, falls in love with Andy, marries Andy, or takes Andy on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon (my absolute favorite April/Andy moment in the show’s history, especially Plaza’s acting during that scene) I know, I know: she has one note as a dramatic actress – reluctantly mumbling out genuine feelings she tries hard to mask in apathy – but that one note charms the hell out of me. But when she’s allowed to go dramatic on “Parks and Rec” (again, with her one note acting), it’s effective because she plays dour, apathetic twenty-something so well that the dramatic, introspective bits come as a pleasant surprise. Apathy and snark are okay, as long as you still root for the character in the end. I root for April Ludgate because Plaza’s performance is so spot-on. And now with Safety Not Guaranteed, Plaza has successfully transferred those skills to film. I don’t know that she could be a leading lady in anything but indie films like this, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because more indie films need to be like this.

Oh, and any film that can sneak in a reference to the Extra Lives code for Contra without it feeling shoehorned…well, that’s a winning film in my book. Safety Not Guaranteed is a lovely surprise (with an ending I loved) that totally blindsided me; it may just find its way on my year-end list.

* I’ve tip-toed around the ending because I don’t want to spoil anything, so if you want to discuss the polarizing ending, let’s move that discussion to the comments. 


  1. This is one of those movies that gives independent cinema a good reputation. It's one of those little gems that isn't seen in most of the country, but should be.