Monday, December 3, 2012
Safety Not Guaranteed
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Kristen Bell, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin
Running Time: 86 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
"Wanted: Somebody 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."
It isn't often a film's synopsis is a classified ad, but that ad above is actually based on a real one placed as a gag in a 1997 issue of Backwoods Home Magazine. It provides the loose inspiration for Safety Not Guaranteed, which shouldn't be considered a time travel movie, at least not in the strictest sense. And yet while this really isn't "about" time travel the entire movie still manages to rest on the "idea" of it. The ad probably could have inspired at least ten equally different but still inspired stories, but director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly still somehow knew the deepest, most interesting angle of approach. That's why criticisms that this becomes just another low-budget indie romance if you take away the time travel element would be wrong. It takes a certain type of person to place an ad like that and also a certain type of person to respond. It's about reading between the lines. Are they really looking for someone to travel back in time with them or it it something else? The answer is more complicated than you'd think going in. Since the nature of traveling through time is built on a desire to go back and change the past it makes sense that anyone this obsessed with the idea would likely be full of regret and have something big to fix. We can all relate, which is why during a movie we can always accept the "idea" behind time travel and then talk about how crazy and unrealistic it is when we get out of the theater. And it is. But someone's desire to isn't. Here's a movie that finally calls us out on that.
Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) is a lonely, depressed college grad living at home with her widowed father (Jeff Garlin) while interning at a Seattle magazine for a bitchy boss (Mary Lynn Rajskub). When cocky writer Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) proposes pursuing this lead of a guy putting out a classified ad for a time traveling companion, he chooses Darius and nerdy biology major Arnau (Karan Soni) to join him. But his real motivation for the trip is to hook up with his old high school girlfriend Liz (Jenica Bergere), while dumping all the grunt work on his two lowly interns. The man behind the ad is an eccentric supermarket clerk named Kenneth Callaway (Mark Duplass) and Darius seems to be the only one capable of connecting with him on any level, making her the ideal candidate to pose as his potential time traveling partner. She soon finds out that he's dead serious and is frantically putting the wheels in motion for this mission to take place as their relationship grows closer. Where he wants to go, why he feels he needs to and how it dovetails with everyone's story, would be giving away too much, but it all together constitutes the essence of the film. With Darius' feelings for Kenneth deepening, she must confront the fact that either this guy is completely crazy and needs help or there could actually be something to his time travel project. It's surprising how much evidence points the latter, while the former still remains very likely.
There comes a point where it almost ceases to matter whether Kenneth is really telling the truth or not, whether he's sane or not, and of course, whether he's really invented a time machine. The story is about so many other interesting things that his plan becomes the vehicle for which the other characters can find a release. In a sense, they're no different than he his and are going through something similar, but in different ways. All three are dealing with major regret in their past while one of them is still at the point where he's capable of preventing it. For Darius it's the loss of her mother, which seemed to have caused a chain reaction that sent her spiraling into a permanent state of depression that's followed her through high school and college into young adulthood. Haunting Jeff is "the one who got away," leading him to a life of shallow womanizing that's continued into his thirties, a time when many of his contemporaries are settling down. At 22, Arnau still has his whole life ahead of him but won't for long if he doesn't get out there and overcome his fears. If not, he's risking a future as filled with regret as theirs is now. Kenneth's situation is a bit more involved, likely because the details of it are constantly changing, becoming a mystery to everyone but himself. His personal history remains a question mark even past the point the final credits have rolled, despite a finish that's anything but ambiguous.
There's a scene late in the third act where someone from Kenneth's past is tracked down and questioned that's so brutally honest it's almost difficult to watch without cringing. This person says nothing that's overtly malicious, speaking the truth as succinctly and sympathetically as possible, but just hearing it is so hard you're glad he's not there to witness it. It's the the most painful of rejections, cutting right to the bone. If he's making his entire story up, we get why, but if he's being honest about everything, then there's even more to talk about. It also can't be a coincidence the filmmakers chose the year 2001 as his destination point, given all its potential implications. That Kenneth or Darius don't acknowledge this will probably be looked at as some kind of sardonic commentary on self-absorbed young people and maybe that's true but this movie perfectly captures the confusion of your twenties and thirties when you first start seeing things through the rearview mirror, realizing mistakes you made then just might be impossible to undo now. All that's left is what's ahead, and suddenly it's sneaking up on you really fast.
Aubrey Plaza is one of those comedic actresses with a rabid cult of supportive fans who probably want nothing more than for her to carry a truly great movie as its lead. And now she has. My doubts about whether she could do it only stemmed from the uniqueness of the dry, sarcastic, eye-rolling screen persona she's perfected on Parks and Recreation each week. It's great in short bursts but I wasn't so sure it would translate as easily to the big screen without some major adjustments made. What a huge surprise it is then that she gives a performance so sympathetic and sincere, not to mention completely unironic. Yet, she can still call on that trademark dry wit when she needs to, like during her first wacky encounter with Kenneth in the supermarket that's strangely reminiscent of April's interactions with her overgrown kid of a husband Andy on Parks and Rec. Or maybe more accurately, due to the dangerous nature of this mission, Andy's goofy alter ego, FBI agent Burt Macklin, who would probably find this whole thing pretty cool.
Though his name is ubiquitous amongst film buffs alongside his brother Jay as a writer/director, this is the first time we've really gotten a read on Mark Duplass' full range of skills as an actor. And he's staggering, delivering a subtly brilliant turn that doesn't take the easy way out in making this guy either endearing or a lovable doofus. You never pity Kenneth and at points Duplass plays it as if he could legitimately be crazy, or worse yet, really dangerous. And in yet another great role for a TV star, New Girl's Jake Johnson plays sleazy jerk Jeff as, well, a sleazy jerk, at least to start out. But as the story of him trying to win back his ex progresses his arc becomes the most emotional and important, with his performance following suit. Late in the film he has a moment (you'll know it when it arrives) that's not only heartbreaking, but a master class in acting, telling us all we need to know with a single pained expression. Though she is billed in the credits, Kristen Bell's brief appearance still feels shocking, but also integral to what's arguably the film's most pivotal scene. Also integral is the score by Guster's Ryan Milller and his original song contribution, "Big Machine," as both fit the picture's tone like a glove.
This is the feature debut of director Colin Trevorrow, who recently made headlines as one of the filmmakers in heavy talks to helm the upcoming Star Wars sequel. Other than a couple of passing references, his only qualification is that he directed a perfect movie his first time out of the gate. From where I sit, that's about as good a qualification as any. This is distinctly human drama with heart before it's sci-fi, but the great thing is that if you chose to view it as either or neither you can't be wrong. By the end, one definitively wins out, and it's earned. Despite seemingly modest ambitions and a tiny budget under a million, this feels much bigger than most movies twice its cost. And it'll probably resonate deepest for those who never felt like they fit in. Outcasts, rebels, oddballs, weirdos. Call them whatever you want, just as long as it isn't "quirky." These characters are anything but. They suffer real pain, regret and rejection and while there are lots of laughs, Safety Not Guaranteed is also unbearably sad in its honesty, going places you never expected it could.