Safety not Guaranteed Colin Trevorrow
Between the moment I wrote this sentence and the moment you read it, it’s quite probable that Safety Not Guaranteed is no longer the latest venture by the suddenly-prolific Duplass brothers (Cyrus, Jeff Who Lives At Home, Your Sister’s Sister). Both of them produced, but Mark steals Safety Not Guaranteed as a slightly too-old lunatic/genius who puts out an ad looking for a partner to time travel with him, so long as that partner “brings their own weapon.”
That lunatic/genius, Kenneth, is quickly tracked down by a trio of journalists, the boss and two interns. Jeff, who pitched the idea, takes a seemingly effortless stab at talking to Kenneth while one intern, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) goes in next and does the real work while Arnau fulfills every Hindi-American stereotype you can think of throughout his non-role in the film. Why exactly Darius, a sarcastic and depressed newly-graduated girl is so quick to cozy up to the paranoid guy who trains her to shoot guns and forces her to drive getaway vehicles in the name of something as ridiculous as time travel is never adequately explained, but it does give us a few touching moments and several funny ones. Both are trying to go back in time, Kenneth for a girl and Darius for her mother.
We quickly discover that the reason Jeff pitched the idea and yet tried so hard to actually follow through is that his desire to go back in time is a bit more metaphorical. Jeff is trying to recapture a love shared with a high school sweetheart some time ago. When he first sees her, he dismisses her as overweight and no longer attractive, but, in a rare act of open-mindedness that is more than a little out of character, he gives her a second chance. Sure enough, he finds himself falling for her once again.
So while the characters are not the best out there, the dialogue is razor-sharp once you are introduced to Kenneth. Duplass single-handedly saves this movie, with his matter-of-fact delivery and stone-faced seriousness—it’s hard not to laugh when he mentions that he was bullied as a kid, “before my martial arts training of course,” and it’s even harder when he talks with such seriousness about time-travel without ever really giving any details. Aubrey Plaza, despite the occasional cringe-worthy delivery in the film’s more dramatic moments, is able to keep up, thanks to her biting sarcasm and on-the-fly wit. There is no question that the funniest parts of Safety Not Guaranteed are those which these two share together. The film’s most touching moment—a beautifully understated conversation about favorite songs taking you back—is also enhanced by the great on-screen chemistry. This particular scene effortlessly succeeds comically, emotionally, and thematically where much of the rest of the film is trying too hard for at least two of the three at any given moment.
Unfortunately, this makes Jeff’s storyline dull and uninteresting. Colin Trevorrow, making his directorial debut, clearly has troubles balancing the two stories, and the sudden and uneven tonal shifts create a somewhat uncomfortable viewing experience. Worse, it climaxes with an extremely predictable moment involving Arnau, who is stereotypically stripped of his stereotypes thanks to Jeff, suddenly the confident guy who gives some heartfelt advice. The saving grace is that the “seize-the-moment” theme remains fairly subtle. So despite all the bores and clichés of this storyline, the end reward is a nice enhancement to what the Kenneth/Darius story aims for more obviously. Yet the ends do not justify the means, the destination not proof of a worthwhile journey, and so half of the scenes are noticeably less involving than the other half. This is in part because of Trevorrow’s direction, but Jake Johnson’s irritating, overly insistent and immature Jeff strips away any sympathy or involvement in this storyline.
On a structural level, then, Safety Not Guaranteed is well intentioned, but clearly misfires. By the time the narrative is cornered into an answer to the time-travel question, any answer feels cheap. The poor payoff renders the understated moments of humanity as insufficiently explored hints instead of the subtle commentaries on nostalgia and carpe diem that they want to be. While no one ever complained about a good laugh, the fact remains that with more time on the script we might have had something far less forgettable than we do.3 July, 2012 - 07:11 — Forrest Cardamenis