Saturday, November 10, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

Last year I had the specific misfortune to watch a movie called "Another Earth", an Indie "SciFi" movie that purportedly was about the possibilities of doppelgangers and alternate universe.  Instead it turned to be a slow miserable movie with excruciating pacing and miserable characters.  And the whole thing about alternate universes?  Just a tease, little more than a poetic metaphor for a painfully dreary drama starring two barely functioning depressives who spend so much time moping in its each other's arms that the movie forgot to actually take us to the 'Another Earth' as the title implied.  Then just for giggles, Lars Von Trier took the concept last year and made "Melancholia", a movie so bitter that the depression managed to sneak into the title.  So 2011 was a horrible year for Indie SciFi, all in all.  These are movies that nobody should ever be punished into seeing.

Luckily 2012 has been a far far better year for movies all around, so the movie I'm reviewing today, "Safety Not Guaranteed", is actually watchable, and is in fact a beautiful, funny, and deeply entertaining film.  Its the story of a reporter and two interns going to a beachside town in Oregon to investigate a bizarre wanted ad in the local newspaper offering a seat in some unexplained time travel adventure.  Who put this ad in?  Is this a joke?  Is he a con-artist?  Is this guy crazy?  Is the time travel real?  Where are they supposed to be going?  Why is the bitchy chick from "Scott Pilgrim" starring in this movie?  All these mysteries and more are the driving element in tension in the movie, though the latter question will probably be answered for you in ten minutes.

"Safety Not Guaranteed" isn't really a movie about time travel, its a drama film that just happens to feature a character with a dream so fantastic and absurd that he's almost childishly inspiring.  His plan at first seems to have as much chance of working as a cardboard box with the words "Time Machine" written on the side.  Instead this movie comes off as a study of characters dealing with growing up, or failing to.  There's a lot more romance than you'd expect.   Its ultimately a character-study, but not one like "Looper" where the study comes from a character literally against himself, its a linear narrative.  In the end, the characters choose the fantastic and impossible over dull regular existence.  The performances are great, the story is great, the directing is solid, "Safety Not Guaranteed" is an utterly solid movie.

The star of the movie is this twenty-something girl inexplicably named after a Persian Emperor, Darius, played by Aubrey Plaza.  Aubrey Plaza, by the way, is an incredible actress who was an amazing find in "Scott Pilgrim" and has quite a career ahead of herself.  In "Scott Pilgrim" all she played was a one-dimensional evil bitch in about two scenes, and yet came off as a very memorable character in a film full of incredible performances from every direction.  She can play cold and bitchy, has perfect deadpan comic timing, but yet the very few times she lets herself smile simply light up the screen.  I really don't think I would have enjoyed "Safety Not Guaranteed" half as much if it wasn't for its main star, though I could say the same thing for about six trillion other movies.  This is one of those magically movie moments where a director found exactly the right person for his movie, I almost get the sense "Safety Not Guaranteed" was written with Aubrey Plaza in mind.  Anyway, the character Darius is a depressed virgin college graduate with no prospects, no boyfriend, no job, and an apparent borderline personality.

Darius has no particular interest in the story or even going time traveling.  She's basically dragged there by the real reporter, Jeff, a lazy bachelor who is on the cusp of a mid-life crisis who is only taking the story because it happens to be nearby his old highschool girlfriend that he's thinking of hooking up with again.  He's only taking interns along so that they can write the story for him.  The third member of the team is an Indian computer nerd who is so badly introverted that he is more or less without a personality.  So its three damaged people going down to find a person who thinks he can time travel.

Their quarry turns out to be a deeply paranoid grocery-store worker named Kenneth Calloway played by one of the Duplass Brothers*.  Kenneth is, in a word, crazy.  He's a survivalist living out in the woods, imagining that the government is hunting him down, and building a time machine.  However, he's also a sensitive soul, in fact little more than a child, with his eyes still brighting up whenever he mentions his old Star Wars toys.  He refuses to have anything to do with Jeff, since he suspects that the story they're writing is supposed to mock him - which isn't far from the truth.  Darius, however, is able to get past Kenneth's screening, and their own issues somehow resonate together in an odd romance while preparing to go back in time and training for combat.  Eventually Darius becomes truly attached to Kenneth, as they share their stories of loss, and she forgets for a moment that this guy is supposed to be nuts.  She even starts to want to believe that he can go back in time.

That storyline alone, I feel, would have carried the movie.  However, "Safety Not Guaranteed" adds a few extended subplots that really don't connect with the time travel stuff other than perhaps a thematic rhyming.  Jeff hunts down his old girlfriend, and there's a small romance there that does not end well, as you would expect.  This leads Jeff to start forcing the Indian kid to become more open with himself, to try to actually have fun.  One generation's regrets become the annoying interference on the younger generation.  Kenneth wants to travel back to his college days when he thought he found love, Jeff's own journey isn't very different.  Essentially the theme of the movie is this:  if you could go back in time to a point in your life when you did something wrong, what point would that be?**  So it roughly 50% works, and I can least say it wasn't filler.  However, it does interfere with the pacing somewhat, as you want to keep focused on the time travel stuff.

I really don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that it is easily one of the best scenes in the movie and really manages to punctuate the entire affair perfectly.  However, since you probably know me well enough by now, you can guess what the ending is since I said its good.  I'm sorry.  Maybe you don't know me at all yet, and maybe you'll be surprised, I don't know.

Anyway, "Safety Not Guaranteed" is a very good example of a great drama comedy.  Its almost Wes Anderson-esque in how most of its comedy comes from the emotional blockages and regrets of its heroes.  I recommend this movie to just about everybody young and old.  Unless the movie you want is something simply, uncomplicated, and thrilling, in which case you can just watch the new James Bond.  I know that's my plan for tonight.

* If you don't know who the Duplass Brothers are:  they're a duo of indie directors who recently made "Jeff Who Lives At Home", which I have no seen.  However, what I've heard is that its one of the most cliched, pretentious, and terribly-shot Indie movies ever made, so I'll probably never watch it.  It sounds dull and mediocre, to get me interested in a bad movie, it needs to be at true wreck, like the Twilight movie that's coming out next week.

** I probably wouldn't want to go back to any moment in my life and do things differently, I accept the fact that every step in my life's journey has its importance, even if I didn't really handle things very well.  Like, high school was a wasted four years, I was just a weirdo the entire time.  But it was an important four years because I needed to learn not to be a weirdo.  Just like I needed to shit my pants for the first three years of my life in order to learn to not shit my pants.  Many of the earlier posts on this blog aren't really good, but I had to learn to get better at writing positive reviews.  However, if I must go back in time:  middle school.  Middle school was awesome.


  1. Dude! Go see Wreck-It-Ralph! It's a Pixar worthy movie!

    1. Trying to, I'll take my little brother to it like next week sometime during Thanksgiving Break.