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Safety Not Guaranteed -Indie Style Time Travel

Note: an edited version of this review has recently been published on Devtome.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Derek Connolly
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni

Safety Not Guaranteed is the latest in a series of highly original and entertaining indie films by producers Jay and Mark Duplass (the latter also stars in this one). Some of their previous efforts include The Puffy Chair and Jeff Who Lives at Home.

All of these are unmistakably indie films, unlike many contemporary movies (say, by Quentin Tarantino or the more recent Steven Soderbergh movies) that lurk on the increasingly murky line that divides indie from mainstream. No one could confuse Safety Not Guaranteed, for instance, with a Hollywood romantic comedy, even though it has some of the same elements.

This is what makes a film like this such a pleasure to see. If you’ve watched enough movies over the years, your mind has become so accustomed to movie cliches that you have certain expectations. In a film such as this, however, cliches are not so much turned on their heads as gently transmuted into something less definable yet infinitely more satisfying.

The hero (or perhaps antihero) of Safety Not Guaranteed is Kevin (Duplass), a possibly delusional inventor who claims to have discovered the secret to time travel. Kevin, who lives in a small town in Washington, places an unusual ad in the classifieds -he’s looking for a time travel partner whose “safety is not guaranteed.”

He is pursued by a team of journalists desperate for an offbeat and funny story. When one of them, a young intern named Darius (Plaza) becomes at first fascinated and then attracted to Kevin, things get quite complicated. A pair of government types are also following him around.

Despite the interesting story, this is primarily a character driven film. In a conventional movie (or novel, for that matter), it’s a rule that the leading characters must develop or evolve in some way. This usually results in some hackneyed event where a lesson is dutifully learnt. Here, the characters don’t develop as much as reveal increasing layers of complexity.

Is Kevin a delusional loser with paranoid tendencies? You might be tempted to conclude this, but then you also see that he’s sensitive, sincere and brilliant. Is Darius’ boss (Johnson) a superficial and cynical manipulator? Yes, but he also reveals a whole different side.

Safety Not Guaranteed does have a geeky, sci fi side to it, but that is secondary to the characters, dialogue and relationships. Yet the time travel element remains significant throughout, so the film has some appeal for fans of this genre -as long as you’re not expecting aliens, spaceships or laser shootouts.

To recite the plot of Safety Not Guaranteed would make it sound like a typical cute, quirky indie film. Like the characters I just described, this film does fall loosely into that category, but it also transcends it by being truly moving and original.

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    Jeff, Who Lives at Home

    Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) is another in what has become a popular genre in both mainstream and independent movies -grown men who literally live in their mother’s basement. In fact, the directors of this film, Jay and Mark Duplass have already covered this territory in one of their prior films, Cyrus. Fortunately, they manage to create original and compelling characters in both films and go beyond the mere slapstick and vulgar humor of Hollywood versions of man-boys, such as Stepbrothers.

    Jeff, Who Lives at Home may not even be the ideal title for this movie, as it’s more about coincidences and synchronicities (another popular topic in movies) than about an adult still living at home. This is made explicit right from the first scene as Jeff (Jason Segel) raves about how much he loves the movie Signs.

    Jeff, of course, lives his entire, apparently aimless life following signs. The entire film takes place in a single day as Jeff follows one “sign” after another. It all starts with a wrong number where someone asks for “Kevin.” This leads to Jeff getting mugged, intervening in his brother Pat’s (Ed Helms) marital problems and eventually playing a crucial role in a life-and-death situation.

    Susan Sarandon also has a role as Jeff and Pat’s mother who is dealing with an existential crisis of her own that parallels her sons’ situations.

    I have some fascination with signs (though I’m not a big Shyamalan fan, at least post Sixth Sense), so I mostly enjoyed this offbeat and often funny look at someone who follows them with a passion. On the other hand, Jeff, Who Lives at Home definitely tests our credibility as it wraps everything up in an unbelievable, almost TV movie type manner.

    All in all, however, I appreciated the questions posed by Jeff, Who Lives at Home and enjoyed the performances and the quirkiness it displayed for most of the journey. It’s a short film, less than 90 minutes but the length feels about right.

    I think a more ambiguous ending would have been more appropriate, as in real life signs (at least metaphorical ones) seldom point things out in a manner as concrete as this movie suggests.

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