Safety Not Guaranteed | Film reviews, news & interviews
Safety Not Guaranteed
Offbeat, heartfelt sci-fi hones in on the emotion of time travel
If 2012 is to have a cinematic legacy, it may just be remembered as the year big-screen time travel came of age. While Rian Johnson’s pulpy noir Looper explored the moral and spiritual implications of a world in which decade-hopping has become the norm, first-time director Colin Trevorrow hones in on the concept’s core emotion. Our universal longing to go back, to recover, to alter the past, is both what makes time travel such an enduringly popular trope, and what sustains Trevorrow’s particular offbeat, quietly joyous take.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a disillusioned college grad living out much the same post-recession reality as Lena Dunham’s Girls protagonist, stuck in a dead-end unpaid internship, she’s grimly resigned herself to a mundane future. When the magazine editor she works for commissions a story based around an unusual personal ad – ““Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke” – she volunteers to accompany timid fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and her boorish superior Jeff (New Girl’s Jake Johnson) on an investigative road trip.
The plan is to track down the ad’s writer, befriend him under the pretence of being a willing participant, and extract as much material as possible for a juicy human-interest feature. But once Darius meets Kenneth (Mark Duplass), it becomes increasingly clear that her interest is not an act, and that she might in fact feel more at home with this strange, lonely, possibly delusional man than she ever has with anyone.
Derek Connolly’s script is far from faultless and feels downright thin in places, but the details of Darius' characterisation are dead on and enhanced by Plaza’s deadpan, appealingly natural turn. “How do you know I’m not on Craigslist, having casual encounters?” she blusters, when her dad brings up the subject of her virginity. Spiky, alienated, she’s never recovered from her mother’s early death and wants desperately to go back in time and prevent it. Psychotic though Kenneth’s claims seem, it’s never for a moment unclear why she would be drawn to him.
Recalling last year’s haunting psychodrama Take Shelter, much of the running time here is spent developing the ambiguity of whether Kenneth is simply a nutjob or not. Here too, the film’s ending leans heavily towards confirming a conclusion that some viewers may not like. But Plaza and Duplass create such an endearing, off-kilter romance – a fireside serenade is among the year’s most touching love scenes – that it’s hard to hold anything against them. The same unfortunately can’t be said for the supporting players.
“You don’t know pain, you don’t know regret,” Kenneth snarls at Jeff, and in a way that’s exactly the problem. His supporting arc – involving a long-lost high school sweetheart – is designed as a less literal counterpoint to the time travel plot, but feels instead like a half-hearted distraction. Johnson’s an actor you can imagine being charismatic in a different role, but everything he does on screen here only reinforces our belief that this character is a tool we don’t want to spend any amount of time with, while Arnau barely registers as a character at all.
This is a heartfelt and smart-tongued micro sci-fi with a tone and voice entirely its own, faltering only in its half-hearted attempts to become an ensemble piece. It’s Plaza and Duplass’s charming shuffle-dance towards the impossible, the offbeat clinging together of two timid, wounded outcasts, that gives Safety Not Guaranteed its resonant loveliness.
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