Review of Safety Not Guaranteed
on 2012-05-30 10:20
Safety Not Guaranteed Review
Safety Not Guaranteed is, and I say this without a trace of irony, the feel-good time travel movie of the summer. In a landscape dominated by cynical action retreads, soulless license driven explosion porn, and Very Serious yet dead inside Oscar bait, Safety Not Guaranteed is a breath of fresh air. Sitting in the Culver Studios screening room, I encountered a feeling that's quite rare to me. I think it's called joy.
The film's success is very surprising considering its source material. Safety Not Guaranteed began life as a straight-faced classified ad from the 90s seeking a partner for a do it yourself time travel adventure. The ad was totally deadpan and made sure to inform applicants that they would be required to bring their own weapons. When posted online in 2005, it went viral, inspiring the usual assortment of Youtube videos and parody songs. There the story would ordinarily end, except the ad caught the eye of screenwriter Derek Conolly. A screenplay eventually followed, which gestated into the film being reviewed here.
Basing a feature film off an internet meme born of a 42 word classified ad sounds like an incredibly bad idea, right up there with green lighting a sitcom based on a car insurance ad campaign. Yet somehow, unaccountably, it works. It works wonderfully well.
The movie opens to ball of Millennial angst and main character Darius (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) getting rejected on the spot while trying to pick up a job at a restaurant. When not giving inappropriately existential answers in job interviews, Darius interns at a Seattle magazine, a position that seems to mostly involve being talked down to by management and refreshing the office's supply of toilet paper.
Art imitates life when a staff writer, the blithe slacker Jeff (Jake Johnson, New Girl), pitches a story around a slightly fictionalized version the original classified ad. He wants to find the author and “See if maybe he believes this stuff,” mostly because it he thinks it might be funny. Darius is selected to go along to help with research (read: do all the work), along with her fellow intern Arnau, a bookish young man who's just trying to pad his resume, while giving most of his attention to his outsized gaming laptop.
As soon as the trio arrive in bucolic Ocean View, Jeff drives off in his flashy Escalade SUV to chase a fling with an old flame. With Arnau basically just along for the ride, that leaves Darius to take point in the investigation. She quickly catches up with their quarry, an odd character by the name of Kenneth (Mark Duplass). It turns out that he's a grocery store stock boy by night, mad scientist by day kind of guy. Imagine Russel Crow from A Beautiful Mind, except more frumpy, underemployed, and less crazy in an imaginary friends way than in a survivalist in the woods, there are people after me kind of way. He doesn't drive an Escalade. He wouldn't drive an Escalade if you asked him to. He may be a brilliant physicist, or he may just be a crazy person. Darius posses as a respondent to his ad so that she can gather material.
With that, the stage seems to be set for a fun, empty calorie sort of movie. Two intern-journalists follow around this zany dude building a time machine in his shed while their boss tries to make it with a high school girlfriend. This is a fairly accurate plot description, but should be nowhere near the DVD cover, because it's not what this movie is.
Safety Not Guaranteed is ultimately about hope, regret, and a long suffering search for sincerity.
Kenneth isn't building a time machine to gallivant around the time line. He's not trying to see the dinosaurs. He's not going to the old west, his parent's prom, or 2015. He's going back a decade or so to right a personal regret, one that weighs so heavily on him that he has dedicated his life to addressing it, in his own quixotic way. The fact that what he's trying to do is quite impossible, and probably illegal, categorically doesn't matter to him. His adult, bone-deep regrets fuel a boundless childlike hope for a future where he can fix the past.
Darius meanwhile is the perfect image of 20-something disillusion in the wake of the Great Recession. We can safely assume that she spent four years toiling away on a high minded degree in journalism, or creative writing, or some-such. She finally graduated to find a world full of... absolutely nothing. She lives with her parents because in the marketplace, her degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on. The only career track job she could find is an internship, likely unpaid, where she's relegated to menial tasks and sitting in the background while others do the work she studied for. Probably her ultimate hope is to gain a spot on the writing staff, where, if Jeff is any sign, dreams go to die.
In Kenneth, she may have finally found someone who isn't tuning out and shutting down. He could be completely bananas, but he also appears to be completely genuine. He begs of her the question: Is it healthy to save yourself by believing the impossible to the point of delusion, or is it better to let go of yourself and live a plausible lie?
Kenneth too is searching for a genuine article. In posting his ad, he wasn't looking for thrill seekers. He certainly isn't looking for people that would mock him or entertain themselves at his expense. He's looking for someone that knows pain, that knows regret, and can share in the wonder and gravitas of what he calls “The Mission.” In knowing and trusting one another, Darius and Kenneth believe they've found someone who can help them move beyond the cynicism and deceit of the world around them. This dynamic is made all the more interesting in that each of them is hiding an unfortunate truth from the other that could shatter this better world in a flash.
Speaking of cynicism and living a plausible lie, there's Jeff. His Escalade lifestyle isn't giving him what he expected. He disparages his career and spends most of his time at work avoiding doing any work. His personal life appears to be empty. He's trying to recapture his youth, in the first way that comes to his mind. His b-plot sexcapade actually has little to do with his libido, although even he doesn't realize this at the start. He's pursuing his high school fling not because he remembers her as a nice piece of tail, but because that period of his life is the last time he remembers really feeling anything.
With these characters' endeavors and interactions, along with those of Arnua, the wide eyed straight- man of the group, the movie examines all these themes, and a few more besides. And it's funny too. Lest the preceding paragraphs deceive you, Safety Not Guaranteed is indeed a comedy. Like the movie itself, the humor is understated and quirky. Laughs tend to be earned at the point of a slight pause and a hint of a smirk rather than a banana peal. A banana peal would be very, very out of place here. The movie doesn't need many big laughs because it gets so many smaller laughs exactly right.
Besides the comedy, Safety Not Guaranteed is an extremely romantic movie. By that I don't mean that this in any way a romantic comedy or a date movie. It's not. I'm not referring to romance between any of the characters. There is some of that, but it's much more the ideas that are romantic. This is a story that suggests that awesome things happen in this world; that a normal schlub can do awesome things. And I mean “awesome” in both the vernacular and literal; Things that are wicked cool, and things that inspire awe. It also proposes the all too romantic idea that the cynicism of the world is not a prison. We can step away from it, if only we have conviction enough to do so.
Are there problems with the movie? Absolutely. I'll admit that in the warm afterglow, I'm having a hard time coming up with many, but here's a couple to get you started: The character of Arnua, while winningly played by newcomer Karan Soni, isn't fleshed out nearly enough. He functions as a kind of everyman commentator in the story, which helps the film, and Jeff probably wouldn't have worked as a character without him to play off of, but when not filling these specific functions, Arnua feels like a fourth piece of furniture in a three piece dining set. Also, some of the on screen romance feels too much like On Screen Romance. Some character fall into each others' arms a bit too readily, as if they're following the dictates of screenwriting rather than their hearts.
What problems there are hardly keep the film from being a winner. All in all, Safety Not Guaranteed is a fun ride that is somehow bright eyed, fresh faced, and refreshingly mature all at the same time. Like the mad scientist grocer it chronicles, the film suggests that a better way is possible. Kenneth isn't going to change the world, not on purpose anyway, but he may manage to change himself. He may inspire those around him. He's just an everyday guy, who just maybe, quite possibly, could perhaps have a time machine in his woodshed. Or, he might just be crazy. My kind of crazy.
Safety Not Guaranteed premiers in LA and New York June 8th, with further releases in more cities starting June 15th.