This soft and unambitious indie hit from this year’s Sundance Film Festival arguably overachieves from its aspirations as a low-rent love story with a sci-fi bent. Executive produced by the Duplass Bros., the story of a lowly magazine intern who falls for a batty backwoods loner who thinks he can travel in time, with mild doses of humour, science fiction and romance, fits into the organic roots of the Northwestern brand of indie cinema.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) dir. Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Mark Duplass, Jenica Bergere
By Alan Bacchus
By design, director Colin Trevorrow begins his story with a pair of extremely unlikable characterizations of his co-leads; Darius (Plaza), a magazine intern introduced doing the dreck work for a glossy Seattle magazine, an underachiever due to her extremely cynical Gen-X viewpoint on life; and Jeff (Johnson), an arrogant and monumentally annoying writer who ropes Darius into helping him write a story on a curious classified ad in a local paper. The ad states that a man is looking for a partner to travel back in time with him, with the cautionary warning, 'Must bring own weapons, safety not guaranteed’.
Venturing out of the big city, Darius, Jeff and tag-along intern IT nerd Arnau (Soni), embark on a road trip of sorts which has them bonding over their strange assignment. The trio seek out and stalk the owner of the ad who turns out to be Mark Duplass as Kenneth, a shy recluse with delusions of grandeur.
Going undercover, it’s up to Darius to cozy up to Kenneth to digest the man’s idiosyncrasies and find the information and back story through which to mock and shame this poor man publicly for the trite urban magazine.
At this point it’s a typical romcom set-up, a lie which begins the relationship then changes from observe-and-report to romantic love, at which point the lie from the beginning will bite back as true identities become revealed. Indeed Trevorrow, working from Derek Connolly’s script, moves in this direction, but it’s his evolving characterizations that break through these worn-out genre conventions.
As much as we hate the egocentric writer Jeff, there’s some talent in crafting such a despicable douchebag who self-identifies himself by his cool condo and his Cadillac Escalade. Trevorrow gradually reveals a soul beneath Jeff’s bravado. When he reconnects with a female lover from the past from whom he states he ‘once got a blow job,’ we see a fragile man deeply in love with this brief memory and the elusive figure from the past.
While Darius’s attraction to Kenneth and his savant-like afflictions are telegraphed clearly, it’s Jeff’s transition from grade-A urban asshole to a soul-bearing romantic opening his vulnerable heart to the woman he’s always loved which blindsides us. That said, there’s still an air of subdued emotion purposely avoiding melodrama in favour of cinematic disaffection. And so the tragedy of Jeff’s life is only a minor emotional blip reconciled by his encouragement and guidance of Arnau’s first foray into manhood.
A minor twist at the end pays off the time travel scenario, opening up the possibility that Kenneth wasn't a crackpot after all. While somewhat delightful and humorous Safety Not Guaranteed ends up being a satisfactory but unmemorable addition to Sundance’s alumni.
Safety Not Guaranteed is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.