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.