Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
A man puts a classified ad in the newspaper asking for an unusual companion. No, it’s not some weird sex thing. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) intends to travel back in time to correct a few regrets. He’s looking for a partner, though he specifies his traveling companion must bring his or her own weapons and that safety is not guaranteed. This quirky ad grabs the attention of Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson), an egotistical writer for a Seattle magazine. He takes along a pair of interns, the surly Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the nerdy Arnau (Karan Soni). Together, the gang heads out of town to seek out Kenneth and determine whether or not he is for real. However, Jeff’s real intention for this “work vacation” was to travel back to his hometown and try and score with Liz (Jenica Bergere), an old high school flame he is horrified to discover has… aged. Darius is the only one who can get close to Kenneth, but what starts as an opportune assignment into investigating a weirdo becomes something more. The guy, sweet if a little off, may be on to something… big, and Darius may be falling for him despite her own misgivings.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a modest film but does it ever sneak up on you and deliver an emotional wallop. I’m a romantic at heart, and so I’m generally affected by seeing two lonely people find their special something in the world reserved for them, and it’s even more affecting when these people are oddballs, and thus it’s even more resonant and meaningful for them to find that connection so elusive before. At its heart, Safety Not Guaranteed is a quirky yet naturally developing love story, and those are my favorite kind. I found my heart melting every time Darius couldn’t help herself and smiled. Perhaps it’s because Darius is our outside heroine or that Plaza is best known for her stone-faced deadpans on TV’s Parks and Recreation, but every one of those smiles felt so richly earned and rewarding. These aren’t the typical rom-com characters that are going to lapse into great speeches about love at key clichéd moments; while dabbling in some fantastical elements, Safety Not Guaranteed exists in our own recognizable world. And with that established, the unguarded moments of genuine happiness for characters we care about translates into a surprisingly touching experience. My heart felt so full at different points, melting and swelling and doing other non-medically accurate things. I honestly had tears in my eyes at different points. By the perfect end, I was so hopeful and overjoyed and left the theater soaring on my good vibes. I can’t guarantee everyone will find the same level of engagement in the romantic relationship, but I believe that the movie is inspired, clever, and authentic enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing finish. It’s earnest without being hokey.
I’m trying to tiptoe around spoilers, though for those critical readers out there I’m sure you can infer a thing or two about the end of the film given my positive, beaming response. I’m sure my reaction would have been quite different if, say, Darius and Kenneth died in a horrible fireball because he was criminally insane from the start. All I’ll say is pay attention to certain discrepancies and see if they might prove to be a conversation-starter when you leave the theater.
Have I mentioned how truly funny this movie is? I’ve been talking all about the “rom” portion of the equation, but Safety not Guaranteed is a consistently funny movie, with a few big laughs. The movie’s sharp sense of comedy is more than everyone simply derisively laughing at the nutball. To be sure, Kenneth provides plenty of comedy in his super serious demeanor, and the movie doesn’t overplay the idea that he may be mentally unbalanced. The jokes come from the character interaction more than any contrived set piece, and the pleasure is in watching conflicting personalities bounce off one another. Every character contributes nicely to the comedic rhythms of this picture, adding a line here, a reaction there, to assemble one very funny movie. In movies where one character enters a relationship under initial false pretenses, usually you just keep waiting for that particular shoe to drop. You wait for the truth to come out and then deception reconciliation dominates the third act. Thankfully, the movie speeds over this narrative trap and gets us to the good stuff. We don’t need an entire act for people to be contrite and prove their love when what we see onscreen is obvious enough.
What elevated Safety Not Guaranteed for me was that beyond the oddball romance, there’s careful and compassionate attention paid to a slew of supporting characters. Now with a scant 80-minute running time, and the attention-grabber of a guy who thinks he can travel through time, naturally the supporting characters have minimized roles, but what I enjoyed was that they were not just relegated as stock players. The film has two stock roles, Nerd and Jerk, and fleshes them out further (though, to be assured, those are still defining characteristics). Arnau is a guy who is convinced any interaction with girls will ultimately lead to personal embarrassment. He’s only focused on the future and what he needs to get there, barely living in the present. It’s nice to watch him grow some confidence, albeit a small amount, and find some degree of enjoyment. And then there’s self-described asshole Jeff, who only submitted the story so he could come back and bang his old high school girlfriend. Some will find Jeff’s minimal personal growth to be disappointing and stagnate, but I thought anything substantial for this character over a three-day period of time would be unrealistic. Jeff is chasing his past memories, a faded time that had so much possibility when he was a stud in high school. The movie explores this notion of returning to a period of innocence as well. Going back to a time before overwrought cynicism, before settling, before compromising, before life became work, it’s something of a wish that the characters seem to be chasing. Jeff realizes how truly empty his life is, yet he’s probably too set in his ways to alter his path, which is a shame because Liz certainly seems like a lovely, caring, and capable romantic opportunity. Hey, she bakes, too (Bergere is great and easy to fall for). The unlikely friendship that emerges between Jeff and Arnau is also quite enjoyable and disarmingly sweet.
I also need to single out the score from first time composer Ryan Miller, the lead singer and guitarist for one of my favorite alternative rock bands, Guster. The music has a lilting, dreamy quality to it but then follows a steady melodic rock path, reminiscent of the melancholic score for Little Miss Sunshine. The strumming guitars, plinging pianos, and swelling violins come together in harmony with little sci-fi touches. The score gives the film another sense of enchantment. I’ve been listening to “Big Machine,” the song Kenneth plays for Darius, on a loop for over an hour, if that gives you any indication on how much I enjoyed the original tune. The fact that “Big Machine” plays over the end credits when the movie meets its perfect end has got to account for some of my positive association. I think Miller has a bright future in crafting film scores.
Plaza (Funny People) deserves to break out in a big way after this film. She’s the heart of the movie and deeply vulnerable, covering it up with nonchalant cynicism. Darius is well within her surly comfort range so it’s no surprise that she excels with the hipster character, but the moments of dramatic weight are not given flippant treatment. Duplass (TV’s The League), just about everywhere in 2012, delivers a committed performance, though it seems mostly committed to the goofiness of his character. Yet when Duplass is able to show you some of the edge to his character, that’s when the performance walks a line between dangerous and exciting. The movie hinges on the two actors working together and they have good chemistry; the goofball and the cynic.
It’s so nice to discover a movie that lifts your spirits, that touches your heart without reaching for the treacle, and delivers a funny experience without compromising its modest aims and modest tone. Safety Not Guaranteed obviously plays a deliberate dance with the audience, vacillating between moments that make Kenneth seem crazy and moments that make you question whether he’s legit. The movie reminded me in a lot of ways of the underrated 2000 flick Happy Accidents, which featured Vincent D’Onofrio as a romantic suitor who also might be a time traveler or just plain nuts. Safety Not Guaranteed is a charming movie that seems to work a spell on you while watching; you get so invested in watching lonely people find meaningful human connections that you are compelling the movie to end under some happy scenario. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly deserve to make waves in Hollywood with what they’re able to accomplish with a tidy budget and some clever yet earnest writing. This beguiling love story is all about stretching out of your comfort zone and taking a plunge into the unknown. Just like Kenneth, we’re all looking for a partner worthy of that plunge (not necessarily a romantic partner, mind you). Take the plunge and go see Safety Not Guaranteed, one of the best movies of the year. Not bad for a movie potentially based upon an Internet meme, huh?
Nate’s Grade: A