Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) Review (R)

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‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ is an ‘indie film’. No, it’s a decidedly ‘indie film’ actually, at once suffering and enjoying all the trappings that are often inherent with the territory. That might be expected given that this is the first big screen offering from director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connelly, both getting producer credits. Sometimes film debuts can be the best work a filmmaker will ever do; sometimes it can be a sign of complete incompetence. What’s presented here made me think that maybe the things that I thought ‘didn’t work’, probably could have been fixed with some editing. The story itself illustrates that.

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In the first two minutes of the film, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a young woman trying to find her way in life (and trying to get a job), recounts a quick history of her life in reverse chronological order… She’s going back. Anyway, she describes herself as a bit of an outsider who has trouble relating emotionally (okay she doesn’t say that per se, but it’s essentially what she says). She last remembers being happy (or feeling that she might have been happy) when she was a very young girl, before her mother died. Darius is probably a little too blunt for her own good and doesn’t make a good impression with a would be employer. She is, however, an intern for a Seattle magazine (appropriately named Seattle magazine) and when one of the reporters on staff named Jeff (Jake Johnson) wants to investigate an odd classified ad that was emailed to him, she reluctantly accompanies him (and another intern) on the road trip investigation.

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Plaza, Sovi and Johnson…

The want ad states that the person in question is seeking a partner to time travel with along with a claim that they’ve done so once before. Jeff states that this might make a ‘funny story’, but he has no real interest in the story. His real reason for the trip is that it takes him back to Ocean View where he wants to re-establish a relationship with the ‘one that got away’, an old high school flame that he once felt happy with. His plan is to let Darius and Arnau (the other extremely tightly wound intern played by Karan Soni) handle the legwork of the investigation while he tries to hook up with the old girlfriend. I think it’s fairly easy to see that even before we get to the mystery of the person who placed the ridiculous ad that  there is a theme of unhappy people who want to go back to a time when they were happier. Establishing theme is fine and all that, but the problem I had with this was that I think that instead of telling the story, the filmmakers loved each and every character so much  in the film that they tried to give each one their own full beginning, middle and end, instead of focusing on who you think are the main characters in the film which is Darius and the eventual mystery person. But, as usual, I’m ahead of myself.

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Darius and Arnau manage to track down their quarry, an extremely paranoid grocery store  employee named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who is apparently completely serious in the ad that he placed. When Jeff tries to establish contact with the man at his home, he is completely rejected, so predictably it falls on Darius to try a different approach at gaining the man’s confidence. It doesn’t take her long to realize that the man is emotionally damaged, if not very lonely. And I think you can kind of see where it’s going to go from here, right? Maybe?There are some mild surprises, though. Just when Darius and company have decided that this is a non-story, there are some things that seem to indicate that there may be a valid explanation for Kenneth’s paranoia.

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Tonally, the film is all over the place. It is quintessentially quirky as indie films often are, even to the point where I was thinking they were trying a little too hard. I felt like they were having a very difficult time focusing. The movie is never really funny enough to be an outright comedy, and barely serious enough to be called a ‘dramedy’. There’s one moment in particular where Duplass’ character overeacts… the ‘ear’ scene… that felt like he was acting in an entirely different movie from everything else that’s presented. Whether for a budgetary reason or the filmmakers possibly making a ‘statement’ about the voyeuristic aspects of such an abnormality, I liked their handling of the ear in question, though. On top of this, what should have been a subplot to reinforce the theme of the film (the Jeff/old girlfriend thread), instead takes up far too much screentime. And I say this while thinking that the best part of the film is Jake Johnson. His character was, for my money, the most textured of the movie. Johnson’s sarcastic/cynical wit made Jeff the funniest character (with Arneau placing second) while also imbuing him with an emotional complexity that was far more subtle than what any other actor presented in the film. BUT… again, that’s the problem. It’s not about Jeff. From my viewpoint, it was obviously about Darius and Kenneth given the bookends of the film.

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I think there also was not enough interaction between the supporting characters (Jeff and Arnau) and Kenneth. There is one moment in particular that seemed arrived at without the necessary scenes to work up to that point. It’s literally one of those raised fist moments where one character expresses their support for another, but to me it felt like the actor just decided to do it without having any scenes that would give that raised fist any real emotional value. It just seemed out of place as with several other scenes (like the ear scene).On the converse, I think the film lacked a few necessary scenes for storytelling purposes. There is never a scene that depicts Kenneth working on his secret project and there needed to be. No, I didn’t give anything away there. I will give credit to the film for at least taking the time travel/time machine aspect serious enough so that you don’t  dismiss Kenneth as just crazy, but that he might actually be  able to back up his claims (even if Duplass plays Kenneth a little TOO deliberately quirky.. when he dons the 80s/John Rambo style tied bandanna he’s practically begging for you to laugh at him).

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Now, that may sound like I didn’t like the movie and that would not be the case. Sometimes, you can look past these sorts of things just because the characters are likeable enough as they are here. I like Plaza in the lead, even if I thought she was a little too stoic and monotone-ish. At times, she sounded like she was doing one of those takes where maybe the director said “Do it again” and she thought it was more for the benefit of the OTHER actor and she was just setting them up with her line, but didn’t feel like she had to be involved… But I guess she was supposed to be a bit stoic… Duplass doesn’t seem to be in the mold of your typical Hollywood actor, both in appearance and delivery. He seems made for the role, being perfectly ‘off’ at the right time. He has the demeanor of one of those kids you meet in high school that wants to express that they have the soul of a poet to EVERYone even as they fail to impress anyone. But the sincerity’s there… I’m really complimenting him there. Whether it was natural or he’s just a great actor, I think he was spot on for the role.

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The film probably could have used a little more ‘adventure’ given the film’s subject matter. I won’t say that the story is anticlimactic, but the stakes definitely could have been raised. I hear Robert McKee (The screaming Brian Cox incarnation, of course) bellowing from afar about the lack of conflict in the film, but as I said, sometimes  a film can succeed through characterization even if the story is found to be lacking a little. And this worked for me. I guess I liked what the story was trying to say or something. It was predicatable, but this is one of those films where they were just trying to make the audience leave with a smile at the end. And with me, they did that.

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4 of 5

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One Response to “Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) Review (R)”

  1. […] A Friend For The End Of the World (the happiest of the recent barrage of apocalyptical films), Safety Not Guaranteed (one of those navel gazing, quirky indie dramedies), The Hunger Games (the better than I thought it […]

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