By Dave Wilson | June 15, 2012
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Derek Connolly
Starring: Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Jake M. Johnson, Karan Soni, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jenica Bergere, Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin
Safety Not Guaranteed has an offbeat premise, an intriguing cast, and even some indie street cred provided by Executive Producers, Jay and Mark Duplass, who also stars in the film. Its snarky sensibility may even slap a smile on your face for the first half hour, until you realize that writer Derek Connolly and first-time director Colin Trevorrow really can’t decide what to do with the amazing array of talent they’ve assembled, or with any of the story threads they’ve set into motion. Add to this the discord of several different acting styles that just don’t belong in the same film, and you have a movie that is nearly as confused as the delusional crackpot at its center.
Safety Not Guaranteed tells the story of three Seattle journalists on assignment to find the story behind a strange classified ad placed by a man seeking a time travel companion. Our entry point into this world is the sullen Darius, played by Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), whose life came to a standstill years earlier when her mother died. Now Darius lives at home with her dad, and after failing to muster the requisite enthusiasm to get a job in a crappy restaurant, she has finally scored an unpaid internship at Seattle Magazine, alongside fellow intern, deer-in-the-headlights Indian biology student, Arnau (Karan Soni). Jake M. Johnson (The New Girl) stars as Jeff, the cocky staff writer who pitches the story idea to his editor, and snaps up the two interns (“give me the lesbian and the Indian”) to hit the road with him to do all the legwork while he spends his days trying to hook up with the high school girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) he’s never been able to get off his mind.
The trail leads to a P.O. box in Ocean View, Washington, and eventually to a paranoid grocery clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), whom an “undercover” Darius approaches and befriends, convincing him that she’s the ideal candidate for his time travel mission. We can tell right away from the wary manner of his co-workers that Kenneth is more than a little “off.” After passing several of Kenneth’s tests, which involve paranoid secret meetings, Darius begins her training, which gradually takes her closer to the details of the time travel mission itself. But something peculiar happens along the way. The more time Darius spends with Kenneth, handling weapons and making late night rendezvous, the more she begins to see the man inside, who may or may not be crazy at all, but who is a kind and genuine, zither-playing romantic. Like her, he is also damaged, driven by regret and a moment in the past he would like to reclaim.
There are a lot of laughs in this material. But you can’t help feeling, like Darius, that you’re being taken for a ride. Every attempt by the filmmakers to find something more at stake in this material, to say something about longing and regret, comes across as totally insincere. There is an episodic, connect-the-dots quality to many of the moments along the way, which feel like they have originated in funny, sitcom-inspired one-liners scribbled on napkins, rather than situations organic to these characters and their choices. In fact, one of my main complaints about the film is that these aren’t really characters at all, but two-dimensional types: Jeff, the one-note douchebag, Arnau, the virginal nerd in “child molester glasses,” and of course, Darius herself.
We have seen Aubrey Plaza’s downbeat, depressive Darius-type before. I don’t know if this is just a coincidence, but she reminds me an awful lot of that animated 1990s MTV character, Daria. I haven’t caught up with her work on Parks and Recreation yet, but her scenes as Seth Rogen’s crush in Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009) several years ago were some of the best moments in the movie. She does Juno-esque sarcasm with a withering gaze so well that you will probably laugh like I did, but later in the film, she’s called upon to undergo a 360 degree transformation that does not work at all. I’m inclined to fault the script for this and Trevorrow’s direction, rather than Plaza. Plaza’s a talented actress and she does have range. But the script puts her in the awkward position of having a character arc that goes from A to Z without any of the intervening emotional steps, so that one moment she’s convinced that Kenneth is a well-meaning nutjob with a prosthetic ear and the next she’s asked to sit on a moonlit beach smiling at him adoringly with folded hands. The results, I have to say, are somewhat painful.
There are some other unexpected casting problems, too. Jake Johnson has done some great work on Zooey Deschanel’s sitcom, The New Girl, but he is not very well suited to playing the infantile, douchebag hack. In fact, the “funny” material he’s given isn’t that funny and suffers from sitcom syndrome, but his better scenes, such as the moments in which he’s allowed to have an inner life, spilling his guts to that girl from the past, start to show how much Johnson can do when given a three-dimensional character to inhabit.
The real star of the movie is Mark Duplass, as Kenneth. Duplass has an earnest, natural quality and a certain charisma onscreen that makes us gloss over some of the weirder stuff he’s asked to do. Like Darius, we want to like Kenneth. We want to look past the delusions and the paranoia because this guy seems more like a real person with a real past than anyone else in the movie. Duplass brings a commitment to this disturbed character that transcends the limitations of its half-baked script. He takes the part at face value and plays it straight instead of leaning on one-liners or playing it big.
The only problem is that Duplass’s natural, improvisational style does not mesh at all with the sitcom sensibility that characterizes the rest of the film. Isn’t it the director’s job to find order in the chaos and to strike a consistent tone? I think so. But then there’s that matter of the script which may simply have needed another rewrite to find its focus.
I still haven’t mentioned the ending, which is so poorly conceived that it nullifies almost everything that came before. Is it funny? Is it ironic? Is it some kind of homage? You would think that the filmmakers would realize that this isn’t a time travel movie at all. So why go there? Why?