Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

Darius and Kenneth's Excellent Adventure

Though it falls short of its potential, 'Safety Not Guaranteed' is a winning combination of rom-com and sci-fi elements

Safety Not Guaranteed
Film District
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenplay: Derek Connolly
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Jenica Bergere
Rated R / 1 hour, 34 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Now here is a movie ripe for a remake. I know, I know, it just came out. Like, just now. And anyway, it's actually pretty good, so why mess with it, right?

Except I kept getting the feeling throughout Safety Not Guaranteed that it could have been so much better. And that I really wanted it to be. That may be a backhanded compliment, but it is a compliment. The film has a strong idea to work with and a great attitude about its material, imbued with a sense of mischief and youthful revolt. But too often it feels like the first draft of what will be (or would have been) a great movie - or an early rehearsal for one, when the kinks haven't quite been worked out.

When the basis for a film is as strange and intriguing as this one, you can't blame anyone for wanting a final product that fulfills all that potential. Safety was inspired by a real-life classified ad that turned into an Internet meme a few years back. The ad read as follows:

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.

As a small jumping-off point for a script, it doesn't get much better than that; writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow wind up fashioning a pretty traditional (but effective) two-lost-souls narrative in and around the time-travel premise. At its best, the film is something of a poem about regret and guilt, lost love and lost youth - but at times it shifts into much more overt territory, with one character in particular openly pining for his younger days in a wholly unconvincing subplot.

That character is Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), a writer for a Seattle-based alt-weekly, who sees the aforementioned classified ad, pitches it as a story to his editor and drags along a couple of interns to find the writer of the ad in what he expects to be a bit of tongue-in-cheek gonzo journalism. Jeff's ulterior motive for the trip, however, is reconnecting with the girl he knew and loved half a lifetime ago (played as an adult by Jenica Bergere).

It's a badly written and entirely ineffective diversion. We understand the filmmakers' intent and where they're trying to go with it, but they just never get there. Except for the fact that Jeff is the de-facto leader of this little expedition, his character can be almost completely disregarded.

The film's soul rests with the intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza), an anti-social twentysomething living at home, working this job and that, without any real passion or motivation, before volunteering to go along for the story. She's the one who winds up finding the presumed time-traveler - Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an eccentric who spends his days working at a grocery store and his nights (supposedly) building whatever contraption he says will send him back in time. Instantly skeptical (especially after Jeff initially - and unsuccessfully - reaches out to him), Kenneth puts Darius through a series of challenges to test her loyalty, courage and integrity. After all, he insists, they have people following them, listening to them, watching their every move.

Kenneth's delusions of grandeur are more endearing than anything else, and Darius finds herself drawn to him more and more as their presumed launch date inches closer. The complication, of course - in that traditional movie-complication way - is that she's still harboring the secret of why she sought Kenneth out in the first place.

Plaza brings her trademark dry irony to the performance, tinged with a sense of something a bit darker and more mournful. She's the standout of the cast, carrying the film even when other areas falter. I have more of an issue with Duplass, who has always come across as a disingenuous actor, and who doesn't really deliver either the sense of strangeness or sadness the character, as written, demands of him.

That being said, he and Plaza actually bounce well off each other in some of the more intimate character moments. Those scenes have a certain vitality and warmth that focus the film even when its other peripheral conceits (sci-fi and otherwise) fall a bit short.

If Safety Not Guaranteed feels a bit undercooked, we can chalk that up as much to its superior on-paper potential as anything else. But in fairness, it's also a warm expression of innocence and hope, and a breezily enjoyable deadpan comedy. And that's just good enough.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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