Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stepping Forward into the Past: Safety Not Guaranteed

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed.

                                    “…. if there were a devil he would not be the one who decided against God, 
                                      but he that in all eternity came to no decision.”  
                                                                                                               – Martin Buber, I and Thou

Surprise, Joss Whedon once said, is “a holy emotion.” Surprise “makes you humble…shows you that you’re wrong, the world is bigger and more complicated than you’d imagined.” It is also becoming scarce on television (the subject Whedom was discussing) and even rarer in film. Every once in a while, however, a movie comes along and does just that. And Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t merely surprising: it is also, in a very real way, about surprise – about why we need it and about everything that conspires to make us unable to experience it.

Safety Not Guaranteed screened at Sundance last January, was in the theatres this past summer, and came out on DVD in the fall. I knew of it – mainly because of Susan Green’s interview with the film’s director Colin Trevorrow for Critics at Large in June – but I finally sat down to watch the film last week. Though I knew the plot’s launching points (a mysterious classified ad) and that it boasted the stars of two of my favourite sitcoms (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, and Jake Johnson from New Girl), I went in with few if any expectations. Three parts rom-com and one part science fiction, Safety Not Guaranteed starts small and grows, slowly and surely, through its 86-minute running time – ultimately telling a story that does justice to the intelligence of its characters and its audience. Neither sickly sweet nor mockingly cynical, the film is still sincerely romantic; for all its ambitions, it remains structurally and self-consciously informed by the established rules of romantic comedy. The first feature by independent filmmaker Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, Safety Not Guaranteed has three charming lead actors, a deceptively simple plot, and a marvelously constructed script. Even as the final credits were rolling, it made me want to generate a “Most Underrated Films of 2012” list just so I could put its name on it!

The film was inspired by one of the Internet’s earliest memes: a puzzling personal ad that appeared in a Seattle-area magazine in the late 90s. The ad, in all of its understatement, read: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” Long before the film was made, the advertisement itself acquired its own notoriety. (The author of the ad has since revealed himself, and though John Silveira doesn’t get a ‘story’ credit, he does have the noteworthy honour of likely being the only “time travel consultant’ currently listed on the IMDB!) There is an appealing simplicity to the story Connelly writes: a trio of Seattle-based magazine reporters drive out to a small seaside community to track down and profile the source of the ad. Jake Johnson plays Jeff Schwensen, a cynical and benignly sleazy writer who pitches the story to his editor simply in order to track down an old flame who lives in that same town. Jeff brings along two unpaid interns, the disaffected Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the nerdy Arnau (Karan Soni), just to have someone to do the writing for him once they arrive. They soon find Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass, The League), the unassuming and apparently paranoid grocery store clerk behind the ad.

Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni, and Jake Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed.

There is an open-ended, improvisational tone to the dialogue in Safety Not Guaranteed, which brings a kind of unique energy to the interactions between the characters. Though the talents of all four leads are well on display, it is Mark Duplass, with his restrained and quiet performance as Kenneth, who steals the show. Johnson and Plaza play darker variants of the television characters they are most famous for: Johnson keeps Jeff somehow likeable, playing the cynical ‘older’ reporter like a sadder and more broken version of the crotchety-but-still-adorable Nick he portrays on New Girl, and Plaza’s Darius is productively reminiscent of her character April on Parks and Recreation an apathetic young woman whose ironic disengagement with the world masks a fragile heart. But it is Duplass’ performance that is a revelation. A filmmaker in his own right (he co-wrote and co-directed Jeff, Who Lives at Home last year with his brother Jay), my own familiarity with Duplass has been limited to his work on FX’s The League.

(An entirely entertaining and often inappropriately hilarious comedy which recently aired its fourth season, The League falls firmly in the style of cringe/gross-out television comedy. Partly improvised and always profane, The League is bolstered by the sheer comedic talent of its stars Duplass and his real-wife Katie Aselton are stand-outs and the amazing guest stars the show continues to draw: last season included visits by Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, and Jeff Goldblum among others.)

Though Duplass has long been the most plainly charismatic of the four male leads on The League, as Kenneth Duplass exhibits an entirely different flavour of charm. Though Kenneth is clearly the enigma at the centre of the film (has he genuinely built a time machine, or is he crazy?), Duplass’ controlled performance brings an emotional clarity to Kenneth despite the fact that, for most of the film, we don’t know really know if we can take anything he says or does at face value. For all that, however, his Kenneth is in many ways less as an enigma than the three other characters. Duplass’ ability to convey the sincerity and truthful core of his character under those conditions is vital to the success of the story, which requires us to believe in the deepening relationship between Darius and Kenneth as it develops.

Time travel stories can be romantic, absurdist, brilliantly convoluted, philosophical, mind-bending, darkly comic, or action-packed – but whatever their tone, there are, almost without exception, about regret and its psychological counterpoints, growth and change. At its heart, time travel fulfils the promise of breaking free from the pain of a present lived under the weight of a seemingly unchangeable past. What singles out Safety Not Guaranteed from the pack is that the story doesn’t lie in the achievement of time travel, but in its pursuit. Refusing the lure of special effects and plot convolution (possible these days even on a shoestring budget – see, for example, Primer), Safety Not Guaranteed turns its energies to the emotional throughline of the idea of time travel, allowing character and not plot to pull its story forward. The wonder and perennial attraction of time travel stories comes this emergent possibility of breaking fate – which is basically what genuinely moving into the future feels like, for all of us. What Safety Not Guaranteed reveals is that the opposite of regret isn’t redemption (as many comparable narratives seem to imply), but decision: that difficult, terrifying, choice to break, finally, the fatedness of the past, and step (leap, really) into a genuine futural future. Insofar as we are all essentially temporal beings, we are all time travelers in theis most fundamental sense.

This film’s ambitions are entirely for the head and the heart, and not the eyes – and it succeeds brilliantly. Safety Not Guaranteed is the most effectively romantic film of the year, and perhaps one of the most heartfelt, sincere time travel stories ever filmed. Rarely I have I seen a film which so earns the emotional triumph of its final scenes.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.


  1. Nice review -- I liked the film a lot, too. One of my favourite parts was when he pulled out the zither and played that song. Lovely.

  2. Great review. I find myself recommending this film to everyone I meet.