Safety Not Guaranteed
dir. Colin Trevorrow
Release Date: Jun 15, 12
Safety Not Guaranteed is a gently hilarious, wonderful film that deceptively obscures its profound warmth and studied character observations to a point, tricking the viewer into expecting a snarky indie rom-com about a forlorn, lovable loser and the maladroit woman who falls for him. In some ways it delivers precisely this, but the beauty of director Colin Trevorrow’s film lies in how all four of the primary characters transcend their seemingly obvious roles and reach at some beautiful, poignant truths about regret, the hazards of memory and the power of not travelling alone. Even if that travelling happens to be through time.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is drifting through life as an unpaid intern at a Seattle leisure magazine, where she’s tasked with the grunt work nobody else will endure. One of her bosses, the foulmouthed Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), finds an ad in a local newspaper’s classified section, which reads: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll be paid when we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” Figuring that this could lead to a funny article, Jeff takes Darius and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) up to northern Washington to investigate. There, they find not only Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the lonely eccentric behind the ad, but also far more existential realization than any of them could have planned on. From there, the film becomes a subtly moving adventure story, all leading up to what will likely be the single best payoff for any film released this year.
Plaza, who’s often typecast as a bitterly disaffected twentysomething (because she’s damned good at it), proves here that she’s a bonafide leading lady. As Darius begins to investigate Kenneth, and starts doubting that his time travel plan is merely a recluse’s foolish plot, she exudes a quiet kindness, allowing her emotional barriers to slowly come down as she’s forced to deal with some of her own personal demons through Kenneth. Duplass, however, runs away with the film, in a performance that will hopefully be remembered at year’s end when awards season begins. Kenneth could’ve easily fallen into cheap caricature in a lesser actor’s hands, but Duplass extends him well beyond the goofy awkwardness of his early scenes, such as one in which he puts Darius through “martial arts” training that seems to be wholly of his own creation. As the stakes begin to pile up, and indeed they do, Kenneth’s borderline-insane devotion to travelling back through time gains resonance, and even if the film’s central thesis ends up being a bit pointed (the final scene drives it home right on the nose), it’s far too lovely to be any kind of distraction.
There’s a relentless earnestness to Safety Not Guaranteed, bolstered by the small-town setting of Ocean View, a tourist trap that’s out of season and populated now only by the locals who could never shake its summer romance. The film aches with nostalgia, not for any particular time but simply the concept of, the idea that something each character left behind was inherently better than what they have in the present. Indeed, even the boorish, lecherous Jeff is slowly broken down by their increasingly lengthy trip, attempting to rekindle an old summer romance and facing his own past in the process. Arnau, who just seems to be along for the ride, eventually has something of a life-changing moment, dragged along for an evening of hedonistic indulgence by Jeff with hysterical (and yet sweet) results. There’s not a broad character in the film; Trevorrow clearly loves these people, and treats their lives with the weight and importance each of them deserves. It’s truly rare to see a film in which you wish nothing but genuine happiness for every person in it, and want to spend significantly more time with all of them after it ends. Safety Not Guaranteed is that kind of film.