Safety Not Guaranteed
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Written by Derek Connolly
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
Rated R for language including some sexual references
Running Time of 86 Minutes
Last year I wrote an article about the film War Horse, first published on my blog and then again here. In the article I discuss emotion in cinema and the way various people react to it. I am far from a psychologist and I only have a very basic understanding of human nature, yet I have no doubt that the way one responds to strongly emotional films has much to do with their individual personalities and the experiences that are unique to them. You often hear words get thrown around such as “manipulative,” “corny,” “saccharine,” etc. when people don’t connect to the emotional moments in a film or find them overdone. I myself admit that there are certain films which I have found too maudlin or corny for my taste. To quote my earlier article on War Horse, “Some of us are jaded, cynical, and emotionally stunted and prefer our films to follow suit. Others are so wide eyed and joyous that they sob at romantic comedies. I honestly don’t believe this says anything about one’s intelligence or merits as a film fan, and I think there are plenty of opportunities in which people will respond differently to films than they might expect. There are no set rules when it comes to how people respond to films that play strong with emotions and heart and this is why you see such widely divisive reactions.”
Safety Not Guaranteed is not necessarily a highly emotional film. There are moments of great joy and sadness, but in the broader spectrum of cinematic expression it is a fairly balanced and nuanced film, almost perfectly so. What Safety Not Guaranteed is, though, is a highly optimistic and hopeful film. Optimism and hope are two traits that I have begun to appreciate more and more with each passing day. I believe that we live in a very cynical, cold time. Our economy is in a downturn, there is political and social unrest, the younger generations are apathetic, there is war across the world. I don’t need to teach a lesson on this. Pick up the newspaper. What I have found, though, is that the moods, thoughts, and taste of many seems to have shifted alongside all of this misfortune. Sure, this is a generalization. I am not speaking to facts. I am speaking merely to my observations. And I have observed a wealth of cynicism amongst society, amongst the youth, amongst those who work and live, and amongst those who write and talk about film. I have been known to be a sarcastic and cynical person, and in many cases I still am. Lately, though, I find myself trying to fight this. I am feeling the need for a little hope and a little optimism. That is what Safety Not Guaranteed delivered to me, and it was an almost cathartic experience.
In some ways, Safety Not Guaranteed works as a fascinating thematic counterpoint to Seeking a Friend For the End of the World. Though that film was released later than this one, I saw it first and I couldn’t help but think about it. Both feature two people that find themselves connecting under unlikely circumstances, amidst a higher concept that questions and troubles the audience. I thought Seeking a Friend was a beautiful film, and so is this one. The journey that the characters take in Safety Not Guaranteed is a different one, though; less literal and more internal. When we meet Darius, portrayed by Aubrey Plaza with a wealth of genuine humanity and sadness underneath her sarcastic shtick that she has honed to perfection on Parks and Recreation, it is clear that she is a cynical person. In fact, when you hire Aubrey Plaza to star in your film chances are good that the character will be cynical. An intern at a local Seattle Magazine (called, quite simply, Seattle Magazine), she is intrigued and bewildered when a reporter named Jeff (Jake Johnson), every bit the cynic that she is, pitches a story that follows up on a classified ad. The ad, which is taken from real life (the only element of this film that is “true”) reads 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. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
Darius, Jeff, and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni) set off on a trip to investigate the individual that posted the ad. This is a high concept for a film, and one that is obviously shrouded in a lot of mystery, some inherent humor, and the potential for science fiction. When they finally meet Kenneth, portrayed with warmth and whimsy by the exceedingly likable Mark Duplass, their cynicism and their outlook is constantly tested. Each character in this film has a unique internal journey and a full arc. This is a tough trick to pull off, and a deft balancing act. Jeff, a brash, “hot shit” type character is an ass for most of the film and yet we find that he comes full circle in his surprisingly tender mentor relationship with Arnau, the geeky Indian intern. The film, though, is truly about Darius and Kenneth. The pair are like peanut butter and jelly. They aren’t necessarily bad on their own, but damn they are better together. Kenneth tests everyone around him. He is very plainly a strange man. His fashion sense, his mannerisms, his paranoia. Yet he is also incredibly sweet, and Duplass is able to create a rich character. His affect becomes infectious, on Darius and on the audience. We question him, we laugh with him, we take the ride with him. What are his secrets?
Safety Not Guaranteed is a film that has answers. I feared ambiguity, a trend in low budget filmmaking that doesn’t work as often as it does. There is no ambiguity here. It is a low budget indie that could undoubtedly be described as quirky. It has some murky cinematography and a cute score by Ryan Miller of Guster. Director Colin Trevorrow and Writer Derek Connolly both make their feature debut. The film isn’t particularly polished from a technical standpoint. We’ll call it science fiction mumblecore, an appropriate description considering the involvement of Mark Duplass. None of this matters. Safety Not Guaranteed tells a great, hopeful, uplifting story with characters that you love to spend time with. The cynicism is washed away. Can one human being have this affect on another? Safety Not Guaranteed argues yes. Within the mystery and the oddities lives great humanity. Others may not respond the same way. We all have different experiences, different outlooks, different personalities. But I think we all need to take the time to look deeper. We can’t judge our entertainment on the surface in the same way that we can’t judge people on the surface. It is all too complex, too rich, and too filled with life. These are things that this film made me think about, and that is why I found it so special, regardless of its production value or technical accomplishments. Ryan Miller composed a song entitled “Big Machine” that Mark Duplass gets to sing in the film. The lyrics go “Maybe I’m wrong and all you get is what you see. Or maybe I’m right and there’s something out there to believe.” I certainly think there is, and this film does too.