Every once in a while, there is a film that I instantly connect with and love from the first five minutes. Safety Not Guaranteed is such a film for me. It is a film that maintains the veneer of a light comedy even though it is about regrets, putting the past behind us, making the most of a moment and moving on when we don’t. It certainly helps that it is very funny. I know a lot of people will dismiss the film as a “minor indie” because of that, or they’ll simply use what I’ve noticed is the new favorite adjective of anyone that wants to dismiss anything with a low budget and the slightest amount of cleverness or quirk, “hipster.” I don’t recall anyone in the film having ironic tattoos, wearing scarves in summer or asking if their food is organic, so I’m not sure what one has to do with the other. (One obvious scholar on Amazon’s website called it a “chick flick” due to a lack of action. Well reasoned, chap!)
In my case though, it struck all the right chords and entertained me throughout. I found it in some ways to have the kind of character building that one would find from a film by Wes Anderson. In fact the male lead, portrayed by Mark Duplass, struck me as very much in the same vein as Dignan from Bottle Rocket. Clearly though, Safety would never be confused with an Anderson picture. It contains a much looser feel, minus the rigid stylization and world building Anderson makes. In this case, it’s absolutely the right choice. It helps ground the film in a needed reality that helps ratchet up the tension as things go more off the rails.
The film’s beginnings come from a fake personal ad that ran in the back of a magazine in the 80’s looking for a partner to experience time travel (“Must bring own weapons. I’ve only done this once before.”) In the movie however, the ad is placed by a sincere individual. He lives in the woods of Washington and runs drills, preparing for his trip back in time.
Answering the ad are a trio from “Seattle Magazine,” a reporter and his two interns, one of whom is Darius, brought to life by Aubrey Plaza. Plaza, not just one of the big reasons I need to finally start watching Parks and Rec, but also a perfectly bitchy Julie in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, is at her best in the role. As the film’s lead, she manages to be likable, yet acerbic in a way that is very rarely seen, especially from a female comedian. This is not a dumb comment about women being unfunny, before any reactionaries fly off the handle; I’m talking about a particular personality type that is rare in men and seems to be even rarer in women. It’s kind of a Bill Murray quality, which is the biggest compliment I can think to bestow. When she says scripted oddities like, “There’s no sense in nonsense when the heat’s hot.” she manages to somehow say it in a way that is both mocking and sincere at the same time.
Thinking they can get a humor piece for their publication, the interns (Plaza and a young actor named Karan Soni) stake out the PO box in the ad. After following him from the post office, Plaza convinces Duplass that she is up for the trip and trains with him. Along the way, she begins to get the feeling that there is more to him than the nutjob people see him as. She senses a fellow outsider and she clicks with him. The reporter, meanwhile, is using the entire exercise as a way to look up an old high school girlfriend in the area, leaving them to their own devices. Jake Johnson, recognizable for many small roles in comedies like 21 Jump Street, is good and smarmy in his interactions.
The plot, initially breezy, finally gets some gravitas in the end, and the end will likely be where opinion on this film truly splits. It will be maddening for some who need absolute closure like the fifteen endings to Lord of the Rings, while others will not care and truly love it. I am of the latter category. While I would have loved to see more (heck, maybe I’m in the minority, but I’d love to see a sequel to follow up the film) the current ending is perfect in its own way. Some lessons are learned, some are ignored, but it is a moment seized.
I will be revisiting Safety Not Guaranteed many times in the future. I just wish I could go back in time and see it in the theater.
(Four damns out of five)