By Kerrie Costello
Not to describe a film through comparison, but I couldn’t help think that Safety Not Guaranteed presented as a live action version of Daria in which she encounters a man with an alleged time machine. Or perhaps if Aubrey herself encountered this same man. This probably isn’t the most predictable) concept for a film, but it has been made regardless, in Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, and with commendable results.
After screening at this year’s Sundance, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Safety Not Guaranteed went on to receive critical acclaim The screenplay was written by Derrick Connolly, inspired by a small magazine classified ad, originally printed in 1997 . It stars Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass- who also co-produced with brother Jay- and co stars Jake Johnson and newcomer Karan Soni, with cameos from Kristen Bell and Jeff Garlin. The film follows Darius (Plaza), an apathetic, dour, unenthusiastic intern at Seattle magazine, who has given up on joy since her mother’s death. When writer Jeff (Johnson) requests a trip to seaside town Ocean View to cover a story about the author of a mysterious time travel ad, he brings two interns, Darius and Arnau (Soni) with him for help. Most of the work, however, falls to Darius, as Jeff spends his time tracking down an old sweetheart -his ulterior and true motive for the trip. So Darius finds herself spending time with Kenneth (a wonderfully odd Duplass), the self proclaimed time traveller, and slowly questioning her initial assumptions about his mental health.
The film takes its plot line from a now infamous newspaper ad which read “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box [...] You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before”. That an entire movie could be written from a single two-word ad is not surprising. The ad; both perplexing and funny, opens up so many questions – about the author, the details, the reason, the entire context. And these are exactly what Safety Not Guaranteed explores. Time travel films have never been reserved for the Sci-Fi or fantasy genre, as we can see with Bill and Ted or even Back to the Future, but they are not often independent dramedies either. Furthermore, while many films which explore time travel tend to explore the travel itself, and the subsequent consequences- whether funny, dire, horrifying or even romantic- it is rare that a film should focus, not on the travel, but the mentality behind it, and the attitude which society would realistically give someone who claimed this ability. Safety Not Guaranteed focuses on the reasons a person would have for travelling back in time. The alleged time travel is almost incidental or irrelevant here; this is not an exploration of science, but of character. While the reliance on the alleged time machine is small, the questions this film asks are not. Much like Duplass’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home from last year, Safety Not Guaranteed offers an idea of what happens to the mumblecore genre when it is suddenly touched which action, when the everyday and the extraordinary meet. The film thrives on ambiguity- is it concerned with paranoia, or valid thriller/action tropes? Is it a romance or does it mock nerdy naiveté? While this rejection of predictability is compelling at times, in can also veer into frustrating, as it somewhat alienates the audience.
The film doesn’t attempt to solve anything for its characters. This is not a film which seeks a full resolution of its characters flaws and problems. The subplots we see in Jeff and Arnau are never fully met with a conclusion or ‘happy ending’. Rather, they depict a small insight into both characters, as shown with Jeff, who neither gets what he wants, nor learns from it. In fact it is Jeff- so skeptical of the concept of a time machine, and seeing Kenneth only as fodder for a mocking piece of writing – who does most time travel in this film. Unlike Kenneth, though, Jeff does not take a moment to examine his motives for returning to the past, instead heading full on into it, fuelled by a lack of fulfilment, and spite. And to this end Johnson must be commended; he is thorough in his portrayal to the extent that you want to punch him in the face, but displays enough humanity that you just about hold back, recognising a hurt behind his actions. The result is a bitter and unlikable, albeit real character, with little redeeming qualities, and who provides stark contrast to the naiveinnocence of Kenneth.
Mark Duplass makes a fitting and atypical male lead, and finds a balance in ambiguity; he is believable, embodying the character of odd social misfit without ever becoming too stupid or gullible that he becomes a joke. This is Aubrey Plaza’s first lead role in a major feature film, having had supporting roles in major films Funny People, and Scott Pilgrim, and it is the first of many starring roles ahead for the actress. Plaza – in a strange contradiction – finds herself awkwardly at home in front of the camera, which observes her nuanced expression and emotion. This is at its best when she is opposite Duplass- as two misfits engaged in their odd training practices or when discussing plans and strategies. And that’s what these two characters are; misfits who have now found a complimentary space in each other. It is precisely Plaza’s token awkwardness and sullenness that makes her smile shine when it does surface. It is just her unwillingness to give into happiness and smiles that proves the truth behind them when they do happen,both to the audience and herself. “Expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up.” These are the words Plaza’s character utters as her life plan at the beginning of the movie, and which serve as a sort of mantra for her character. This pessimism is contrasted in Kenneth’s blindly faithful belief in hope. In Kenneth we see a character so devoid of cynicism that he not only places an ad purporting to time travel, but arranges training for the actual ‘mission’ which he has designed. The movie itself is concerned with hope; with what happens when cynicism is left aside for a moment, and hope is allowed to creep in. We see this with Darius, and Jeff too,with very different results.
Karan Soni must be praised for his brief scenes as the work-centred nerdy intern Arnau. This character is never fully developed however, appearing only to counter Jeff’s own flaws, rather than as a fully realised character in his own rite. His brief scenes are little more than potential unrealised, and serve predominantly to further existing ‘nerdy Asian virgin’ stereotypes.
If you’re searching for a film which is gratifying in both its character arcs and plot, for the most part this is not it. The characters are largely devoid of passion or life lessons – the only ones who truly show desire and yearning are the (for all intents and purposes) justifiably insane Kenneth, and nerdy Arnau. What you will get however, is a beautifully acted, subtly nuanced film, which will surprise rather than satisfy.