Time and Punishment?
|Courtesy of FilmDistrict and Big Beach|
Safety Not Guaranteed's opening minutes filled me with real dread, despite the prior assurances from both critics and peers that it was delightful. The soundtrack was filled with incessantly / infuriatingly chirpy tunes. The visuals were the familiar wide-angled compositions recognisable from countless indie movies past. The characters seemed to be wacky caricatures. Everything indicated that this would be another exercise in generic independent quirk. My concerns were far too presumptuous, even if the soundtrack remained pretty annoying - by the film's conclusion, I had been well and truly wooed by director Colin Trevorrow's feature debut.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a moderately depressed and apathetic intern at a magazine. Increasingly bored, she agrees to accompany journalist Jeff (Jake Johnson) on a trip to research an article about a mysterious newspaper advertisement - the ad's composer requesting a companion to travel through time with him. After some old-fashioned investigative journalism, Darius meets the deeply eccentric wannabe time traveler Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Winning his approval, Darius is inducted into Kenneth's intense training regime to prepare for their adventures through space and time. Along the way, the two begin to fall for each other. But is Kenneth really being pursued by mysterious agents, and what the hell does he actually have in his garage?
Safety Not Guaranteed has two major assets. The first is Aubrey Plaza. As a fan of her portrayal of the endlessly cynical April in the wonderful Parks & Recreations, I was already won over by her deadpan comic timing. Here, she retains that post-adolescent indifference, but effortlessly instills it with depth and warmth. The second major asset is Duplass. Again, I'm a fan - few actors working today are so inertly charming and likeable. Once again, he works wonders with deceptively simple material. Duplass' Kenneth is a lonely, troubled and potentially unhinged guy with extremely convincing reasons for embarking on this madcap scheme of his.
The best rom-coms are defined by the likeability of their leads, and the relationship that inevitably forms between Darius and Kenneth is one we want to succeed because the actors and director ensure that they're engaging, relateable leads. This alone is a significant determiner of Safety Not Guaranteed's ultimate success, but there's much to like elsewhere too. Johnson enjoys an initially uncertain but ultimately pivotal subplot as he tries to track down his high-school sweet heart while actively avoiding writing his article. It'd be easy to recognise this stuff as filler in a film that's already barely over eighty minutes long, but instead it resonates with the core plot in surprisingly subtle and insightful ways. Though it's almost always uncertain whether Kenneth has actually discovered time travel or he's just straight up deluded, the plot explores the potential motivations and consequences of time jumping in fascinating ways. This is a film about memory, permanence and regret - about the mistakes we make and the steps we can or cannot take to rectify them. Although the plot of Safety Not Guaranteed pretty much entirely fails to qualify as science-fiction, Trevorrow expertly manages to explore themes both fantastical and realistic.
Safety Not Guaranteed's ending is close to pitch-perfect, as the scale of Kenneth's project is revealed in the surprisingly thrilling final minutes. There are a few rough edges getting to that point. The aforementioned maddening soundtrack keeps chirping away throughout, and while the film's brevity is admirable, there are a small handful of dramatic developments that could use further development (although Trevorrow cheekily and correctly allows some degree of ambiguity). As this is first and foremost a rom-com, the film's plot beats are predictable from the offset. Yet the film is so warm and charming the flaws barely register as you're watching. Through the hard work of the cast and director, the situations and characters are much more engaging than they have any right to be. A single miscast role could have fatally damaged the film, but happily that's not the case. Safety Not Guaranteed is pretty much a guaranteed feelgood crowd-pleaser, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.