MOVIE REVIEW: Safety Not Guaranteed

(Image: imdb.com)

(Image: imdb.com)

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED-- 4 STARS

I don't know how the good screenwriters do it.  They make magic from B.S.  Every casual moviegoer, at one time, has played the role of  "armchair" screenwriter or tough-talking "living room" film director (myself included).  They commonly start by saying, "Dude, I have this great idea for a movie."  Everyone's got an idea or a "pitch," but how many of those are really plausible and workable as full movies.  Sure, it might be a nice idea in theory, but it struggles to have depth for more than a five-minute Saturday Night Live skit.  Could you make a complete fleshed-out movie out of that?  Probably not, but you could go check with Seth McFarlane anyway and ask what his pitch was for Ted other than him telling jokes as a stuffed animal.  That's why screenwriters get paid the big bucks and the rest of us write blogs or do less than that.

On the surface, that's the likely first impression one would get with Safety Not Guaranteed, the new independent film slowly gaining attention in theaters after winning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.  The proverbial pitch that we would laugh off becomes the jumping off point for a unique and original comedy.  On the actual poster and in the film, an ominous Seattle-area classified ad sets the stage: 

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke.  You will get paid after we get back.  Must bring your own weapons.  I have only done this once before.  SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

You read that and tell me what you think.  Yeah, you're right.  That sounds like a preposterous movie plot that either a drunk guy would make up at the bar or those "armchair" screenwriters dialed up.  The set-up is for real and the movie is for real.  Taking this idea and running with it to unexpected heights, Safety Not Guaranteed is one of the most clever, sharp, and well-written movies you will see this year.  

A bevvy of TV scene-stealers make up the cast.  Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a wayward and uninspired low-level intern with a Seattle magazine that still lives at home with her widower father (Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin).  Doing crap work for her boss Bridget (24's Mary Lynn Rajskub), she gets picked up to participate on an investigative story looking into the aforementioned classified ad.  The lead writer on the job is the cocky and conceited Jeff (The New Girl's Jake Johnson), who would rather chase local tail on assignment than really do the work.  Jeff and Darius are joined by the introverted foreign nerd intern Arnau (newcomer Karan Soni).

Together they make the trip out of town to coastal Washington where the track down the writer of the ad, the reclusive Kenneth Calloway (The League's Mark Duplass, who's also a producer of Safety Not Guaranteed with his brother Jeff).  Kenneth is socially awkward and obsessive nerd of a man who's definitely a recovering loner, driving around in his beater car.  He endlessly "trains" for his "trip" by day and stocks supermarket shelves by night.  Darius, with a combination of charm, intrigue, and perceived focus, befriends and infiltrates Kenneth's operation.  With a career break in mind, she makes up a story and earns his trust to join him on his journey.  Of course, as their time together grows, it becomes more than a job for her.  Jeff and Arnau follow Darius's work, but soon realize that they're not the only one's watching Kenneth Calloway.

If a few years time, you may be marking this movie down as a new discovery point of great things from this cast.  All three leads have made a nice little niche out of playing supporting characters in all of their previous work, but really get to stretch their legs and talent as leads here.  Jake Johnson has been earning his memorable moments in No Strings Attached, 21 Jump Street, and even played a hilarious Jesus Christ in A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas.  Between this and his work on Fox's The New Girl, Jake is getting bigger roles to show his appeal, even in this vulnerable a-hole role in Safety Not Guaranteed.  Aubrey Plaza, a blip on the screen in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (other than a great cussing scene)a love interest in a hated movie failure (Funny People), and a sideline character on NBC's Parks and Recreation, really steps up here.  Her deadpan style is still her disarming way in, but she shows that she has more than that to offer.  She's a more than plausible romantic lead and finally gets a few more welcome opportunities to smile that deadpan away.

The real revelation is Mark Duplass.  Playing one of many smart-asses on FX's The League, he is really getting his due to share his talent as an actor.  With Safety Not Guaranteed, his diverse resume continues to grow and includes two other movies in theaters right now, Your Sister's Sister, and People Like Us and two others, Darling Companion and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, from earlier this year.  He has the hardest role to sell with Kenneth.  He has to be believable as not just being crazy, but with good cause.  If you can't get the earnestness and remorse his character's craziness is rooted in, the whole movie falls apart.  

Safety Not Guaranteed dares to keep your attention at every turn and really succeeds.  The script is brilliant and deserves the praise it has already gotten.  From diving deeper into Kenneth's world to seeing the different motivations that come to light, for both our time travelers and our magazine team tailing him, more and more layers of interest keep coming into play.  All the while, you feel the countdown and are driven to wonder if Kenneth and his time machine are the real deal when the time comes to leave.  This pace makes the movie breeze by and, unlike some other edgy indie movies that sell you with teases, the payoff is really rich and deserved.

LESSON #1: THE OBSESSIONS WE FILL OUR LIFE WITH-- For as much as I will advertise Kenneth's sweetness, he's still a little crazy.  He's spent the better part of a decade stealing, scrounging, and plotting to build a time machine and change his past.  That's a heck of a deep obsession and a few notches above most of your everyday hobbies.  You know what, though, it drives him, motivates him, and keeps him going.  For that, it's not a bad thing.

LESSON #2: OUR SOURCES FOR REGRET, MISTAKES, LOVE, AND LOSS-- That's a big list of things to source, but the question you wonder all movie until the tipping point of Safety Not Guaranteed is the big one: Why are you going back in time?  The answer to that for both Kenneth and Darius is marinated in regret, hopeful in love, cognizant of loss, and stemming from perceived mistakes.  In both characters, we see what those feelings have done to them over time.  You can easily connect that "how far would you go" measurement to this scenario and lesson.

LESSON #3: THE DIFFERENCE OF DOING THINGS BY CHOICE-- You might say that we are always in control of our actions and that all of our choices are our decisions.  You could play the "no one's forcing you to jump off the bridge" analogy.  However, our characters in Safety Not Guaranteed have experienced a few times where their actions felt forced, driven by a need, or as a reaction to something not in their control.  With this possible step into time travel and changing their fate and past, the importance of doing something or going into something by independent choice becomes all the more important.