by Josh Tomany
From the April 2015 Issue
I’ll admit I’m a bit of a skeptic. In a world of multi-million dollar reboots and poor book adaptations, originality, sincerity, and good writing sometimes have to be sought or stumbled upon. 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed, written by Derek Connolly and directed by Colin Trevorrow was, for me, one of these stumbles. Based on the following 1997 classified ad, Safety Not Guaranteed has the potential to do everything wrong but instead does everything right:
WANTED: Someone 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.
In any movie where time travel is possible, the margin for mediocrity is relatively wide. Going back to the past to save or fix the present is at this point a tiresome and worn out concept. Fortunately (and certainly intentionally) in this film, time travel is used merely as a small structural device to bring forth well written and relatable characters in what amounts to a surprisingly sincere comedy.
It starts in the office of a Seattle magazine, where writer Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) recruits two interns for an assignment. The first, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), is a young, offbeat loner, bored of the world around her and living in her widowed father’s broken home. The second is Arnau (Karan Soni), a nerdy biology major working at a magazine for the sole purpose of fleshing out his resume. With this unlikely and mostly uninspired trio assembled, they embark to track down the owner of the ad for a feature story.
One of my greatest pet peeves in cinema is unnecessarily long films (Two hours is usually the cut off point for me). At eighty-five minutes, Safety Not Guaranteed avoids this problem by leaving out needless, obligatory travel shots, and so it doesn’t take long for Darius and Arnau to track down the writer of the ad: Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass). A supermarket employee, Kenneth comes off as mix of a Boy Scout and Dwight Schrute of The Office. He’s completely alone, completely alienated, and completely convinced that time travel is possible. When Jeff fails to pose as a potential candidate for Kenneth’s partner in time travel, Darius, with her sarcastic and intimidating wit, succeeds. The more she learns about Kenneth, the more she questions her original perceptions of his sanity.
The greatest strength of this movie is the depth of these characters, as there’s certainly a reason it received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. While this movie could have just been about two miscreants with a shared dream of time travel, a nerdy sidekick, and a lustful writer after an old flame; it’s actually much more. It skips all the clichés and tropes that make time travel movies and romantic comedies what they are. Through love lost or love found, frustration, or happiness, the script (however absurd) doesn’t feel unrealistic. Plaza and Duplass’ characters’ chemistry is uncomplicated and understandable, not to mention it actually makes sense based on the characters personalities, rather than being there for the sake of romance.
And it’s this chemistry between Kenneth and Darius that steals the show. Sarcasm matched with wit provide for hilarious moments of smug dialogue, while more intimate moments between the two almost seem unscripted. Aubrey Plaza expands upon the deadpan humor and secretive demeanor that she has become known for on Parks and Recreation with a character possessing more insightfulness and emotional attachment. Mark Duplass – the driving force of this film, in my opinion – controls the tone and the story from our first introduction to his character on the doorstep of his parents’ old house. A true step forward for him, this role ripples into his character in the recent film, The One I Love with Elisabeth Moss, and has certainly helped him become the major indie force he is today. Produced by his brother and talented director, Jay Duplass, and their production company, Duplass Brothers Production (which has produced the acclaimed The Skeleton Twins as well as the aforementioned The One I Love), this film is certainly a great introduction to the style and quality of a brand of film becoming more and more popular today.
With simple, but effective storytelling, which refuses to use dialogue as a primary mover of the plot, Safety Not Guaranteed is a refreshing example of emotionally satisfying, uncomplicated filmmaking. For stars like Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson, this movie showed there was space in the world of film for these television actors. For the Duplass Brothers, it was another in a long string of great indie films, with more likely on the way. And for Colin Trevorrow, as this was his directing debut (for a feature film), I have hope and excitement for his next directing role in the highly anticipated Jurassic World. In a roller coaster ride of an ending that closes the proceedings in the only way a movie like this could, Safety Not Guaranteed leaves us with a time travel movie that teaches us about living for the present instead of redoing the past.