Tully is a Young Adult reunion, bringing back writer Diablo Cody (Juno), director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), and star Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde), and for people without kids, it can feel more like a horror movie. Numerous movies have conveyed the challenges of parenthood, the put upon moms and dads struggling to juggle schedules and lunches and homework, all without much time to themselves for self-care. Usually these movies will begin by displaying the hardships of parenthood but ultimately put a cheery bow on things by the end and conclude, “Yeah, but it’s all worth it.” Tully doesn’t provide that easy bow and I appreciated that. Motherhood can be a real bitch.
Marlo (Theron) is a 40-year-old mother who feels overwhelmed with life. She’s about to have baby number three and her “atypical” youngest son requires a lot of intensive supports and is upsetting his school. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is away for work often and late at night he plays online games and keeps to his side of the bed. Marlo’s rich brother (Mark Duplass) takes it upon himself to hire a “night nanny,” a person who watches the newborn baby during nighttime hours and allows the mother to get some restful sleep. Marlo is adamant about not letting a stranger watch over her child but soon relents and calls for the nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a mid-twenties godsend who is wise beyond her years, competent, and nonjudgmental. With Tully’s assistance, Marlo is able to make steps toward becoming the person she remembers.
Through its depiction, it feels like parenthood has a lot in common with incarceration. It feels like a new parent goes away for a multi-year sentence, loses all sense of sleep, is indentured into work often without any compensation, and required at a moment’s notice at all hours. Marlo’s life is certainly unglamorous but it’s also taking its toll. The needs of her children, including one with undiagnosed special needs, are snuffing out her sense of self and taking an unremitting physical and mental toll. The opening of the film has Marlo days away from her third pregnancy and she looks like she’s smuggling a beach ball. Her brother’s wife cheerfully adds, “You look glowing,” that age-old pregnancy praise, and Marlo’s unfazed reaction is more of a, “Really?” She then proceeds to compare herself to the trash barge that floated along the East Coast in the 1980s, a perfectly plucked pop-culture allusion from Cody. At no point do you doubt the love Marlo has for her family, but the servitude is driving her crazy and with no relief in sight with baby number three. There’s a pristine montage of her daily routine of feeding, pumping, changing diapers, and absent sleep, the days just melting into one another, and it’s so horrifying in its mind-numbing execution that it reminded me genuinely of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream montages of drug-abuse and despair.
It’s a third of the way into the film when Tully enters the picture and serves as the long-needed change agent for Marlo. She’s the miracle worker nanny that works at night like a whimsical little elf, and the next morning the house is clean, the baby is taken care of, and Marlo has been allowed a rejuvenating night of sleep. You can chart the change in the quality time with the family, where quickie microwave pizza dinners become more advanced home-cooked meals with multiple ingredients and food groups. You can also chart the change through the magnificent performance of Theron, who appears to be regaining her sense of self and placement in the family. Tully serves as a refreshing, therapeutic conversationalist, able to get Marlo to introspectively reflect upon her life’s goals and setbacks and her sense of what she should be as a woman and not just as a mother. Tully is wise but also winsomely hopeful and optimistic; she recharges the battery for this family and Marlo in particular. These gentle, observational conversations are the best part of the film and Theron and Davis are wonderful together. Each woman seems to be learning from the other and providing a support system.
Cody’s early screenwriting was dinged for its obsession to be quippy and hip, but it has matured and depended over the years. Young Adult was an incisive character study in kamikaze narcissism, and it was as cold as Tully is warm, even-handed, and honest. Having a talent as surefire as Theron is a great asset, but it’s Cody’s storytelling that gives the movie its sting and its sweetness. This is something of a comfy thematic middle ground between the ironic, quippy yet sentimental Juno and the dark spiral of stunted growth in Young Adult (seriously, rent that movie again if you can, it’s vastly underrated). Tully is a movie that is lifted on wry observations and honest dialogue. It feels very real, so much so that I was convinced the reality show-within-a-show Gigolos (Marlo is a bashful fan) was the real deal for most of the movie [Edit: it has come to my attention this is a real show. Ahh, still a nice detail about Marlo character]. I also loved the drive into Brooklyn being relegated to jump cuts, each new jump playing a different Cyndi Lauper track on an album, which feels very biographical and authentic. The details of Cody’s story feel sharply developed and authentic, and that’s the biggest draw of this movie. It’s an unvarnished look into the realities of motherhood and each little detail helps further contribute to the larger portrait of Marlo’s exhausted life. The supporting characters do get a bit of short shrift here, kept as one-dimensional peripheral portrayals. I was expecting more from her husband Drew since their relationship and the platonic valley they’ve found themselves stuck in is another significant aspect. However, the movie is really about the relationship of Marlo and Tully and how they build up one another. Marlo even sees herself in the younger nanny, and she’s also wistful of a time that her body more closely resembled that of Tully’s flat tummy and compact derriere.
Theron continues to establish with role after role what a phenomenal acting chameleon she can be. I know we gush about Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, and Kate Winslet as the finest actresses of their generation, but I feel like Theron deserves to be in that same hallowed Pantheon. She gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in 2003’s Monster and I think she was deserving of nominations for work as varied as a one-armed post-apocalyptic feminist warrior. Theron gained fifty pounds for this beleaguered role, which is an impressive commitment, but she doesn’t just let the weight gain serve as the focal point of her performance. She uses every exhausted muscle to communicate Marlo’s plight. When she’s slumped over in a chair and just rips her off stained shirt, you feel her utter defeat and desperation (“Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” one child asks). This is a woman who is tired to the bone. She’s taking everything life gives her and soldiering onward, afraid to speak up. This is best voiced when she describes her relentless day and staring into a closet and thinking, “Didn’t I just do this?” Theron’s renewed vitality as mother, wife, and most importantly, person, is a rewarding development to tag along with. Theron’s breadth of tenderness, sadness, and hard-won insight is easily relatable and emotionally engaging.
The one thing that holds me back from fully embracing Tully is a late story decision that I’m still wrestling over. It feels a bit like tonal whiplash and I immediately felt like it was completely unnecessary and that I was happy with the movie already being told. It left me jarred although I admit this decision helped provide better context for some unexpected turns in the middle between characters. Having deliberated for a couple of days, I can see how this decision plays into a larger sense of theme and character, while also tapping into something primal about motherhood and the emergency lifelines needed and provided. I’m warming to Cody’s decision and can see the rationale behind it. Still, there will be plenty of audience members that will be left questioning the thought process here.
Tully is the third collaboration between Cody and Reitman and they bring out the best in one another. After two duds in a row, I was worried that Reitman had become all too mortal after his 2006-2011 run of amazing films. It’s reassuring to find Reitman back in finer form and to also experience the maturing growth of Cody’s exceptional writing. I wish there was more with the supporting characters but this is a character study of our main momma. The late plot turn will divide audiences (I’ve already identified with both sides) but it serves the film’s larger focus on the well-being and recuperation of Marlo. Tully is a funny, compassionate, and unflinching movie about the perils of motherhood and the steps we all need to take to activate a little necessary self-care.
Nate’s Grade: B+
A simple yet high-concept sci-fi hook that’s nicely examined and developed for its duration, The One I Love is a relationship drama with a twist, one I won’t feel bad about spoiling considering it happens in the first 15 minutes. Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss play a married couple going through counseling to work out their trust issues. They head out to a resort home to spend a weekend getaway; however, whenever one of them enters the guesthouse, their spouse is magically there. Not just them but an idealized version of them, the best representation. The two explore what this means, establishing a series of rules of intimacy that of course will start to be ignored. The mystery of why this doppelganger honeymoon suite is happening is inconsequential. What matters is how our couple responds to it and the film thankfully allows this conflict to stew, maximizing its potential to explore the jealousies and insecurities of relationships. Duplass and Moss are terrific and have fun with their many iterations. The One I Love finds ways to continually surprise while still feeling grounded by its real-world application of its science fiction premise. The ending is a tad predictable but still satisfying, likely inspiring many conversations afterwards with would-be couples who watch the film. At its core, it’s an intriguing story that’s very well developed while never losing sight of its characters and their relatable nature. It’s smart, funny, and always interesting, and well worth exploring on your own when given the chance.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Lynn Shelton is quickly becoming one of my favorite indie film artists. Her writing and directorial offerings are somewhat relegated to the fly-on-the-wall hipster “mumblecore” category, but what separates Shelton is her narrative momentum, her laser-like focus with character, and her sense that a movie needs to build to something significant. With 2009’s Humpday, it was two dudes who might have sex as a test of their masculinity (you really need to see the movie for the full context). With Your Sister’s Sister, it’s the full ramifications of a bunch of delicious relationship secrets getting out there. Everyone in the film has something to hide and something to lose, and watching it all play out with humor and sweetness and honesty that is rare in movies.
Jack (Mark Duplass) is still coming to terms with the death of his older brother. His best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), who was his brother’s girlfriend at the time of his passing, offers a suggestion. She arranges some alone time for the guy to clear his head. He bikes out to her family cabin but is surprised to find a guest already there, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’ older sister. Hannah and Jack break the ice by bonding over their personal loss: his brother and her ending a seven-year relationship with her girlfriend. Over a long night of drinking, the two decide to impulsively have sex. The next morning is even more awkward when Iris shows up at the cabin, planning to finally reveal her own feelings for Jack. What follows may be one of the few character-based sitcom plots I’ve witnessed.
Much like Shelton’s previous movie, the greatest strength of the film is how beautifully naturalistic it all feels while still telling an engaging story. The film has a relaxed vibe that washes over you, allowing you to immerse yourself in what feels like a real group of friends. There’s a tremendous naturalistic ease the film exudes, with the actors so familiar with one another that they truly feel like family. When I have well developed characters, and actors who seem so knowledgeable of their character’s tics and flaws and secrets and smallest details, I could honestly listen to them talk for hours. I don’t want to mistakenly give the impression that this movie is a dull yakfest where the participants are in love with the sound of their own exceptional voices. Each scene in this movie advances the plot further, twisting the screws, complicating matters, and brimming with delightful awkwardness and tension. With 2009’s Humpday, I wrote: “What I really appreciated about Humpday is that every moment feels genuine and every scene has a point. I was amazed that Shelton and her small unit of actors had made it so that every conversation had purpose; there is so little fat to this screenplay. Each scene reveals something new about a character or pushes the narrative forward toward its uncomfortable climax, and each moment never breaks the reality of the story.” And the same can be said for Your Sister’s Sister as well.
While the premise is a bit of a sitcom novelty with some farcical developments thrown in, the depth of the characters and the fantastic acting help to make sure that Your Sister’s Sister is nothing but graceful and beguiling. And the escalating conflicts, personal revelations and complicated feelings, always find a way to come across as organic to the story. That’s another amazing part of the film, that even with all the sexual hijinks that it still manages to feel grounded and surprisingly relatable. These are interesting, complicated, flawed, and spectacular characters, and watching them interact, profess their love through small actions and big declarations, seeing their heartfelt camaraderie, and watch them navigate their troubled lives to find some semblance of a happy ending is a joy to watch. This is a potent little movie, fully realized, poignant, funny, and genuine.
The film was shot over the course of 12 days and Shelton has said that much of the dialogue was improvised, working off her outline. Improvisation is a dangerous tact when dealing with a dialogue-driven film, such as this one. Just because it’s coming off the top of your head doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good. Not everyone is gifted with the ability to improv dialogue that is true to character, revealing, advances the story, as well as just being entertaining. Luckily, Your Sister’s Sister is the exception.
If Your Sister’s Sister does have a weakness, it’s the third act that seems to stall out without giving us much in development before tidying the broken relationships up again. The film’s comedic structure could feel, in lesser hands, like a generic sitcom. It is to Shelton and her actors’ credit that the twists and turns still manage to feel as believable as possible. The third act hits when all the secrets come out, pushing the characters away. Rather than (minor spoilers) ramping things up, we merely endure an extended wordless sequence of images of Jack biking around and the sisters burying the hatchet. Then it’s time for our big happy romantic declaration that tidies everything up, and we’re done. While satisfying on an emotional level given our empathy for the trio, the third act does seem very thin for an otherwise lean and well-structured story. It feels like perhaps Shelton only had enough plot for two acts.
The main trio is a rather engaging ensemble that convincingly plays a besotted group of friends and family. Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed) has gotten considerably more attention since starring in Shelton’s last movie; the man and his schlubby, smirky charm are ubiquitous. He has a way of being edgy without pushy and nonplussed and flummoxed without going overboard. Duplass has a natural fit for comedy but the man can really excel with the meatier drama bits as well, displaying the painful yearning of a man caught between his desire and the need to move on. He’s a winning and likeable presence that can still be endearing even when he’s flailing around or making others uncomfortable.
DeWitt (The Watch) was a late addition to the cast, replacing Rachel Weisv (The Bourne Legacy) when scheduling conflicts got the best of her. She deserves extra kudos for how good she is considering the miniscule prep time she had compared with her costars. DeWitt is amusing in how cagey and sardonic she can be, and her chemistry with Blunt (Looper) is outstanding. I greatly enjoyed the subtle nuances between them, the way their body language and gestures added extra layers to their relationship, the familiar communication and sisterly code, and just the smallest details that felt well thought out. The relationships in Your Sister’s Sister feel sweetly genuine, and with the benefit of great actors, it lays the groundwork for characters we care about.
Three people sharing time in a cabin might not seem like an exciting setup for a movie, unless, of course, there’s some supernatural presence murdering them in grisly fashion. However, when you lock away three great actors who know their characters inside out, a smart script that allows them the space to develop but pushes the movie forward scene-by-scene, and direction that feels seamless with the storytelling, then you have something special, and that something special is Your Sister’s Sister. While I think Shelton’s previous film had more at play concerning male relationships and sexual politics, this one, with a more straightforward, farcical plotline, is still plenty entertaining and with strong character work (the ending does leave one very large question unanswered). This is charming, sweet, unassuming little indie film that will provide a solid dose of smiles and laughs.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, Oscar winners for 2009’s Best Picture-winner war film The Hurt Locker, were hard at work on their next movie when fate intervened. They were about to start production on a film about a 2001 incident where U.S. Special Forces almost nabbed Osama bin Laden, the notorious mastermind behind 9/11. Then on May 1, 2011, the world learned that Seal Team Six stormed bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan and executed the most wanted man in the world. Bigelow and Boal scrapped all plans and rewrote their movie from scratch. Now they had the ending we’d all demand; isn’t a movie where we get bin Laden way better than one where he narrowly escapes? Zero Dark Thirty (military terminology for well after dark) is the stunning result of Boal’s impressive reporting and condensing, Bigelow’s masterful direction, and a great supporting cast that brings history to vivid life. If you’re like me, you’ll walk out of the theater whistling to yourself, speechless at the spellbinding artistic achievement of the movie. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what essential, invigorating, quality filmmaking is all about.
We may know about Seal Team Six and the lead presented from tracking the courier, but few people know of the CIA analyst at the heart of the manhunt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young agent stationed in Afghanistan who desires nothing more than to be the one who helps ensure that bin Laden gets killed. We follow her decade-long quest as she chases down leads, interrogates prisoners, and successfully presses the CIA brass for action, resulting in the fateful raid that took out bin Laden.
You can tell early on that Zero Dark Thirty is going to be an excellent film. Given the pedigree of is creators, my expectations were enormously high. I rated their previous collaboration as my top film of that year. I knew I was in capable hands when the film opens on September 11, 2001 but skips any visuals. We sit and watch a minute of a blank screen while the sounds of desperate 911 calls become a wall of sound. It’s enough to reassert the stakes while still being restrained. Bigelow’s directorial command is astonishing, pitting you in the thick of the action. There are a lot of moving parts with a movie like this, wheels within wheels, and Bigelow keeps everything moving and focused. It helps that the bigger manhunt is broken up into a series of mini-missions over the ten years. Bigelow and her talented production team have recreated the ends of the world to bring this story to life. That added sheen of verisimilitude gives every moment a sense of magnified power, an electric sense of relevancy. You’ll get goose bumps as they start circling the actual location of bin Laden. Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her virtuoso work on The Hurt Locker, still knows how to play every one of your nerves. There’s a clandestine meet up with a possible turncoat that is stuffed with dread. Every checkpoint, every safety procedure waved, you’ll be biting your nails, the voice in your head clearly saying, “Oh no, this isn’t going to go well.” Zero Dark Thirty is more crime procedural than the action thriller. Even so, Bigelow’s direction is top-notch and brings an intense, churning verve to the film, down to the smallest detail.
The film plays out like an absorbing, hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, recreating the steps and false turns over the ten-year manhunt for bin Laden. There is a lot of information to process and over 100 speaking roles, and Boal and Bigelow do not stoop to pander to the less intelligent in the audience. You will be expected to catch up or fall behind. It can get confusing at points but Boal does an exceedingly articulate job of narrowing the particulars of the bin Laden case and presenting a clear through line. It’s a story that hops around the globe through a series of mini-missions, from a meet up with a possible al Qaeda spy to locking down a phone number to trace a courier in Pakistan. You see every step, every deal, and every effort that it takes to land the big break, namely tracking down bin Laden’s trusted courier to his Abbottabad compound. Boal even separates his narrative with titled sub-sections like a lengthy piece of journalism. We all know where the story is going to end up, but Boal’s supreme talent is making every step meaningful and tense leading up to that fateful raid May 1, 2011. The level of reportage detail is completely enthralling and will be relatively unknown to most filmgoers. Beyond 9/11 and the London bombings, I confess to being ignorant of the other al Qaeda attacks highlighted throughout. Therefore, not only is Zero Dark Thirty an exciting manhunt, it’s also an educational endeavor for most Americans.
The proceeding two hours are an engrossing manhunt, but when Zero Dark Thirty gets to the raid sequence, that is when the movie ascends to a level of cinematic excellence unsurpassed this year at the movies. There is nothing else in 2012 that comes close to matching the 30-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I was physically shaking. I was pinned to my chair. The conclusion, nabbing bin Laden, is one of the most riveting sequences in film I have ever seen. It’s like Bigelow has complete control of your senses, and even though we all know how this story ends, you’ll be glued to the screen, pulse racing, anticipating every step. After the film ended, I told my friend Eric that I felt like I needed to start smoking, thus was how exhilarated I felt leaving the theater (message to kids: don’t smoke, even if you see Zero Dark Thirty). My head was bustling afterwards. All I could think about was the masterful conclusion to a very good movie. The raid sequence is brilliantly recreated and just about portrayed in exacting real time; you feel like you’re right there along with the members of Seal Team Six. For a civilian, it’s fascinating jut to watch the minutiae of what went down, but under Bigelow’s taut direction, it’s the moment every American has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Bigelow is also careful not to portray the death in any sort of jingoistic, fist-pumping context. She sticks with her docu-drama approach, avoiding sensationalism, and you don’t even see the shot that takes down bin Laden. The film is also very careful not to linger on bin Laden’s dead body or even reveal his face; she doesn’t, as President Obama said, “spike the football.” Bigelow deserves a second Oscar just for her superlative handling of those unparalleled 30 minutes of pure filmmaking bravado. Plus, it’s the best ending of the year at the movies.
Let me address the brewing controversy ensnaring the movie regarding its depiction of torture. Zero Dark Thirty does demonstrate torture but it never glorifies it or presents it as anything less than dehumanizing and morally repugnant. But torture did happen (I’m sorry Dick Cheney… “enhanced interrogations”) and to whitewash this regrettable period of time from the historical record is a disservice to the truth. This country, as well as any other, engages in extreme and detestable measures; we only hope that our leaders have the moral clarity to make these ethical lapses as few and far between as possible. Now, the politicians and bloggers have attacked Bigelow’s movie as tacitly condoning torture, indicting that it was successful in getting that big break. This is not the case. Zero Dark Thirty shows a variety of methods being used, and yes we get a heavy helping of torture and humiliation, but it’s when Maya and others start treating the detainee like a human being again, offering food and conversation, is when the progress is made. The film does not explicitly declare one interrogation method successful, however, I can see where people will draw their own (wrong) conclusion. If anyone wants to read my exact stance on torture, just check out my lengthy review of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. In short, torture does not work and Zero Dark Thirty does not purport that it does, though many may conclude otherwise. It seems to me that the critics don’t have enough faith in the audience to accept ambiguity.
2011’s breakout actress, Chastain (The Help), is the focal point of the movie and she delivers. Her character has no life outside of doggedly hunting for bin Laden. She’s completely driven by the goal of killing him, and as such she gets to uncork some dandy angry monologues dressing down her colleagues for their failing dedication. Chastian does a fine job of keeping a veneer around Maya, shrouding her emotions into a mysterious calm, which seems realistic given the nature of the character but also makes it tricky to connect with her emotionally. This movie is not the great character study that The Hurt Locker was, and so Maya gets some rather shrift characterization: she’s a workaholic fighting for credibility. The real star of the movie is the story so all the characters take a back seat to Boal’s journalism. While Chastain is quite good, I have to shrug my shoulders at the various critics groups throwing Best Actress accolades her way (go Jennifer Lawrence).
The supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link amongst them, from Kyle Chandler (Super 8) as an outpost boss, Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a CIA superior screaming at the bin Laden team to “find me targets to kill,” Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as Maya’s closest friend in a hostile land, James Gandolfini (TV’s Sopranos) as CIA director Leon Panetta, Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) as a skeptical NSA head, and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) as a member of Seal Team Six. That’s right America, TV’s Andy Dwyer helps cap bin Laden. But the real standout is Jason Clarke (Lawless) as an interrogator who eventually leaves the field for an office but still makes headway for Maya.
Much like The Hurt Locker, here is a movie that transcends politics and genre. Zero Dark Thirty is a nerve-wracking thriller, it’s an intelligent crime procedural, and it’s an engrossing and powerful work of relevant art. It operates on such a high level of artistic achievement that little else from 2012 even comes close. This thorough, intense, provocative, thought-provoking, morally ambiguous, thrilling, and generally tremendous movie is taken to a whole other level with its concluding act, brilliantly recreating the raid that took down Osama bin Laden, the most cathartic and satisfying ending of the year. You’ll be liable to whistle in awe at how accomplished Zero Dark Thirty is. Of course audiences should not accept every thing they see in the movie as unimpeachable gospel, as dramatic license is needed to help shape a formidable narrative. This is still a movie that desires to entertain and yea does it entertain. I look forward to the American public getting a chance to experience the same riveting theatrical experience that I had with my critical brethren, as well as the sense of catharsis and relief by film’s end. Zero Dark Thirty forgoes sensationalism for modulation, eschews moral righteousness for ambiguity, and expects the audience to keep up with its retinue of information. And you’ll be grateful to be given the chance to tag along. Run out and see this remarkable movie when you have the chance. Movies don’t get much better than this, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A
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
This lumpy, amiable shaggy dog story from the Duplass brothers is another earnest, warm-hearted comedy that marries their signature family dysfunction, mumblecore quirk to a larger, more mainstream setting. The Jeff (Jason Segel) in question is a 30-year-old slacker, who indeed lives at home, and awaits signs from the universe to guide his decision-making. Incidentally, his favorite movie we learn in a monologue set on a commode, is Signs. His older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is a selfish twit and embarks on a quest, with Jeff, to discover if his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him. The boys mother (Susan Sarandon) also has a nice storyline where an anonymous admirer is sending her flirty instant messages at work. Watching her face light up as she processes being wanted, it’s a thing of beauty. The characters are all flawed, and for some they may be too annoying to sit through. The film has been accused of being aimless, but I was engaged with its plot, which kept ping-ponging from one cause to another effect scenario. The movie is really more a drama with some comedic asides, mainly due to Jeff’s stoner zen and Pat’s aggressive dickishness. Greer has an outstanding moment where she lets her character’s deep reservoir of unhappiness come out in a blinding moment of honesty, and it rang true to my ears. In fact, the entire movie feels true enough. And then it appears destiny reveals its master plan with an ending that makes your heart warm all over, championing Jeff’s mantra of optimism and interconnectedness. The simple, good-natured, sweet little movie is worth checking out.
Nate’s Grade: B
There’s a definite squeamishness out there when it comes to the idea of men expressing intimacy. Brokeback Mountain proved even liberal Hollywood wasn’t ready to anoint a movie about two gay dudes secretly getting it on. There will be large portions of people that will refuse to give a movie like Humpday a chance simply because of its premise: two guys plotting to have sex. It’s not a dirty movie by any means, nor does it get graphic with details or conversations. But the movie exactingly explores the uncomfortable relationships men have with expressions of romance. Humpday is also extremely funny in that pained, awkward sensibility, and I challenge the squeamish to give this charming indie a shot at love. If it makes it any easier for people to take (SPOILER ALERT) they don’t actually go through with it.
Ben (Mark Duplass) is living a comfortable existence with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). Then one day his old friend from college, Andrew (Joshua Leonard), unexpectedly visits. Andrew has lived a Kerouac-like existence on the road as an aspiring artist. The two guys catch up on old times and Andrew invites Ben over to a party. He ditches his wife, and her pork chops, for the party, which turns out to be hosted by a group of free-love artists. The alcohol-fueled conversation lands on Humpfest, the annual amateur pornography festival held in Seattle. Ben and Andrew come up with their own entry idea: two straight guys that will have sex. “That’s beyond gay,” somebody says. Both men refuse to back down. Ben books a hotel room. The only thing he has to do now is tell his wife about Andrew’s “art project.”
Humpday explodes male sexual insecurities better than any film since 1997?s Chasing Amy. Each man refuses to back out of having gay sex because they don’t want to be seen as less masculine. It’s masculinity brinksmanship, willing to go all the way to prove superior heterosexuality through a homosexual act, and it?s nothing short of brilliant. Neither Ben nor Andrew wants to “puss out” on their big moment. But neither of them really wants to go through with it either, which leads toward tremendous amounts of awkward comedy. Writer/director Lynn Shelton has fashioned a scenario that is hilarious but also subtlety heartfelt; many films deal with the bromance of heterosexual love, but Shelton pushes it to the limit. These two guys do care about each other, and you can see their camaraderie as they recount old stories and open up to one another, and in the end they might be willing to go to the extremes for their friendship, whatever the consequences may be.
Both Ben and Andrew have deep-seated insecurities about their personal lives; Andrew wants to live a free-spirited artistic lifestyle but is really too scared to fully commit, and too “square” for abandoning all sexual inhibitions like some of his casual artsy pals; Ben has a house, a job, a wife, and feels defensive about his life choices, particularly the idea that he’s settled down and giving up. Both men are also insecure by sexually adept women, so it may be natural that they seek the company of each other for solace and mutual understanding. The final act, where the two friends meet in a hotel room for their big night, is a slice of awkward comedy heaven. They haven’t worked out any logistics, locations, warm-ups, anything, and watching them verbally hatch a game plan is hilarious and oddly touching in equal doses. They really don’t know what they’re doing and why they’re there.
The actors have a naturalistic feel because, as I’ve found, the dialogue was almost entirely improvised. They shot in chronological order so to build from conversation to conversation, and you can feel the character dynamics strengthen and deepen. Duplass (The Puffy Chair) has a great, wide fake smile that hides a lot of anger and dissatisfaction. He’s sort of a schlubby everyman that we can empathize with even as he moves forward with his participation in the “art film.” Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), and his scraggly beard, effectively conveys a man weary about where his rugged life has led him. He is also hiding behind a guise, the guise of being a nonconformist that chooses to have no earthly ties, but bit-by-bit you see that Andrew is tired of disposable human connections. Leonard and Duplass feel like life-long friends. Then there’s Delmore, who really is the wary, incredulous voice of the audience. She too comes across as realistic under the circumstances, and her reaction when she discovers the true purpose of the “art project” is volatile, yes, but also surprisingly reflective. The three leads never feel like actors; the illusion that these are real people is never broken even given the peculiar circumstances of the premise.
What I really appreciated about Humpday is that every moment feels genuine and every scene has a point. I was amazed that Shelton and her small unit of actors had made it so that every conversation had purpose; there is so little fat to this screenplay. Each scene reveals something new about a character or pushes the narrative forward toward its uncomfortable climax, and each moment never breaks the reality of the story. Given these characters and the amiable direction they follow, Humpday is believable. I suppose it might be easy to dismiss it as another entry in the fly-on-the-wall “mumblecore” film series gaining traction in independent cinema, but Humpday is really more an observational character study that examines male relationships and the sexual politics of being a “man’s man” in today’s world of sexual liberation. There is a nuanced perspective on human sexuality here that I may be erroneously crediting to Shelton simply because she is a woman. It helps to have a more mature, open-minded perspective about the complexities of human behavior for this story to succeed, and I think a female presence behind the camera affords that luxury. There is commentary below the surface; however, Humpday can be entirely enjoyed as a surface-level comedy of an awkward heterosexual showdown.
I find it interesting that the original theatrical poster only featured the two shirtless guys eyeing each other, and with a pink background no less. The DVD cover has inserted Anna between the two guys and gone with the more boy-friendly blue background cover. I think this tiny detail is another reflection of just how uncomfortable the subject matter is for many people. Humpday is an insightful, perceptive little character study that feels real and honest, while at the same time the movie doesn’t allow sexual politics to become the headline. The movie remembers to be funny, often, and any discomfort is worth it.
Nate’s Grade: A