Safety Not Guaranteed
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson
It’s the kind of quirky independent film one would expect to see at any of the 465 film festivals hosted in this country each year. “Safety Not Guaranteed” revels in its peculiarities almost to a fault. It wears its low-budget badge of honor proudly and indulges in wonderfully eccentric characters divulging all sorts of amusing shenanigans.
A few weeks back I talked about Wes Anderson’s new film “Moonrise Kingdom.” Admittedly, I liked it but felt like the movie was drenched in a thick coat of oddball lacquer, which left me feeling disconnected from the characters. Sometimes independent films can contain a toxic level of anomalies that end up making a harmless story feel manufactured and forced. “Safety Not Guaranteed” skirts this line for an hour and half like a tightrope walker, perilously traipsing Niagara Falls. Fortunately, it never quite plummets into the abyss.
The story centers around a young, anti-social, magazine intern named Darius (“Parks and Recreation”’s delightful Aubrey Plaza). She’s a cynical sour puss with no connection to the outside world. Since the death of her mother, she’s been in a funk and has no idea how to pull herself out. This holding pattern continues until a senior reporter, Jeff (Jake Johnson), brings up a personal ad placed by a guy who is looking for a partner to join him on a time-travel adventure. Jeff sees it as an opportunity for a good story; Darius begrudgingly tags along to help.
Darius soon learns the story is a cheap excuse for Jeff to head back to the town of Oceanview to try and meet up with an old flame. He passes the assignment to her after he’s unable to make any headway. She tracks down Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a strange and potentially deranged guy, who believes he’s cracked the formula for time travel. Kenneth, seemingly harmless, intrigues Darius. He’s the kind of well-intentioned misanthrope who only exists in independent films—a perpetual manchild who manages to be charming in spite of suffering from what seems like a pervasive mental illness.
Kenneth’s story seems too good to be true: No one believes he can actually travel back in time—not Darius, Jeff or the federal agents pursuing him for his bizarre behavior and strange correspondences to government institutions. Still, there’s a dark side to Kenneth. His anti-social leanings, insane ramblings about the government, and stockpile of weapons gives the character some sinister potential (especially in light of recent events). Kenneth always seems harmless enough, but he’s hardly the most sympathetic of characters—nor the most likable. The line between “misunderstood genius” and “gun-toting conspiracy theorist” is razor thin.
The actors and some decent writing save “Safety Not Guaranteed” from devolving into whimsical garbage. Aubrey Plaza plays a wonderful cynic. Mark Duplass does an excellent job of playing Kenneth as likable without relying on kitsch. There were so many moments I felt the film was about to turn into a clichéd, manipulative mess. But, right on the precipice of disaster, the film rights itself. All the character arcs revolve around the longing to return to a better time and place. To return to the moment in life when everything seems perfect. It uses time travel as a metaphor for loss and longing.
My main problem with the film is the ending. Its entirety hinges on the reality of time travel. Is Kenneth a man out of time, or is he just a lovable moron with a dream? And for a movie so rooted in reality, the ending seems very out of place. It goes from grounded independent film to Disney-style romantic comedy in a matter of minutes. I’ve seen plenty of films that have problems establishing tone or characters, but it’s rare to see a movie that has such difficulty figuring out its identity as it progresses.
Though the ending feels cribbed from convention—and that’s saying something because the ending is super weird, even for a quirky independent—I’d like to have found its point relying more on Kenneth’s obsession with the past as a realization that better options await the present. Instead, I watched in horror as the film turned into the kind of senseless rom-com that Meg Ryan would have starred in years ago.
Logic and reason get abandoned for tidy conclusions in “Safety Not Guaranteed.” It’s forgivable for a movie that is more charming than clunky and is easily more engaging than 99 percent of the movies currently screening.