Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Movie – Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

I had heard good things about Safety Not Guaranteed.  It had come out of the Sundance Film Festival having won the screenwriting prize and having been nominated for the Grand Jury prize.  It had good buzz about it, but when it opened this summer it got lost amidst all the mega budget movies that were also getting released.  That is too bad because people missed out on a terrific movie.  Now that it has been released on DVD those who missed out will get a second chance to see a movie that I have no qualms about predicting will make my Top 10 Movies of 2012 list.

On its surface the movie might not look like much.  It’s a low budget, indie film about a man who thinks he can time travel.  It stars people best known for roles in television shows.  Even when the film starts it would be easy to figure the four main characters are just going to be generic Movie Types – the “emo chick”, the “nerdy guy”, their “asshole boss”, and the “weird guy” they are investigating.  As the movie goes along, though, each character becomes a real person and before you know it, you are caught up in the story of these people.  Without spoiling anything, I will say that it’s been a long time since I was this invested in what was happening at the end of a movie.

At a Seattle based magazine the editor (cameo by Mary Lynn Rajskub) is asking her writers for ideas on articles.  All are striking out until Jeff, played by Jake Johnson (The New Girl), tells her about a personal ad he found.  It reads:

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke.  You’ll get paid after we get back.  Must bring your own weapons.        I have only done this once before. 
S A F E T Y  N O T  G U A R A N T E E D

As Jeff says, whether this is a joke or whether the guy actually believes he can time travel, there’s got to be a story there.  He asks for a couple of interns and they are soon on their way to a seaside town south of Seattle.

The interns are the “emo chick” Darius, played by Aubrey Plaza (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Parks and Recreation) and the “nerdy guy” Arnau, played by newcomer Karan Soni.  They soon find out that their boss doesn’t really care about the story.  He just wanted a paid trip to a town that happens to be one he spent a summer in as a teenager and where he had his first real love.  He’s always wondered whatever happened to that girl and it looks like she still lives there.  He sends the two interns out to look for the time travel guy, while he arranges a meeting with his old flame.

Darius and Arnau hang out by the post office boxes where the ad said to send replies.  When an older man appears Arnau dismisses him as a possibility, but Darius insists “he’s the perfect time traveler demographic”.  I don’t know if she was willing to make something up on the spot just to win an irrelevant argument with her fellow intern, or if she has really spent time thinking about what a “time traveler demographic” would consist of, but either way I laughed at this throwaway joke.  As an inside joke, the man who wrote the original Personals ad that this film used as an inspiration is the man who they are discussing.  He is John Silveira and he is credited as “Time Travel Consultant” in the credits.  (Yes, I read the credits).  And by the way, the original ad was a joke.  He was working at a magazine and had to fill space in the Personals section.

Eventually the real man shows up.  He is Kenneth, played by Marc Duplass (The League).  Darius follows him to where he works and finds out his name.  Jeff doesn’t really thank her for doing the leg work, but does have all three go out to Kenneth’s place the next day.  Jeff approaches alone and knocks on the door, but his attitude turns off Kenneth, who kicks him off his property.  Jeff goes to plan B, which is to have Darius approach him instead.  Darius is brilliant at pretending she is really answering his ad and she and Kenneth hit it off.  He “trains” her in skills he thinks she’ll need.  At first she is just going along with him, but eventually her attitude changes.  She’s grinning, then even laughing, as she is enjoying herself for the first time in quite a while.

My favorite scene (other than the ending) is when Kenneth asks Darius why she wants to go back in time.  At first she tries to answer generally, but he presses her.  She starts to tell him a story about her mother being killed in a robbery.  At first it seems like she is just making it up to satisfy Kenneth, but as her body language changes we come to realize that she is telling the truth.  Kenneth now trusts her completely, and she is now no longer sure if she is just doing this to get a good story.

She doesn’t let on to Jeff and Arnau, but she does start defending Kenneth when they say something derogatory about him.  Jeff still thinks this is all a goof, especially when Kenneth won’t show his supposed time machine even to Darius.  The next day, though, when they are on Kenneth’s property trying to look in his work shed where he supposedly keeps the time machine, they notice two other men in suits and driving an expensive car who are following Kenneth.  Maybe Kenneth’s paranoia about people being out to steal his time travel secrets is not just a figment of his imagination.  That opens a whole possible other can of worms, though.  And if it does, Jeff, Darius, and Arnau may have landed in the middle of something they are not prepared to deal with.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a light comedy/drama.  Its humor is more along the lines of witty jokes/comebacks, and the situations people are in, than it is pies in the face or fart jokes.  The drama comes from Darius opening up about herself, as well as her interview with a woman Kenneth used to know (cameo by Kristen Bell).  Sometimes both comedy and drama combine, as in when Kenneth breaks into a tech company to steal something he says he needs for his time machine, and he brings an unsuspecting Darius along to drive the getaway vehicle.

I got this disk from Netflix the day the movie came to DVD.  I liked it so much it was my favorite movie from among the 108 I saw in the month of October.  (That’s not a typo; see my recent October Status post.)  I bought the movie a couple days later and re-watched it.  I enjoyed it just as much, although knowing what was going to happen at the very end did soften its impact on me just a bit.

I originally gave this movie four stars out of five, with the chance it might go to five in the future.  I am very stingy with five star ratings, so I am keeping this at four stars for now, but it is a “high four” stars.  As I said at the top, I expect this will be among my Top 10 Movies of 2012.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable movie and I highly recommend you do yourself a favor and see it.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Good review Chip. Not a perfect movie, but one I still had a good-time with, mainly because of Plaza and just how good she is. I really do hope they make more movies where she's the lead because she deserves them all.

    1. Agreed. She really is the heart of this movie. I remembered her from her small role in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which I liked a lot), so I was glad to see her get a chance to star in a movie.

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed this movie ... my husband and I are really looking forward to this one. Great review, Chip!

  3. Great opener to your time travel on a budget segment, can't wait to see the rest of your picks.

    1. Thanks. I got sidetracked today with replacing a number of expired links at the 1001 Movies wiki that I help maintain. And tomorrow is the American Thanksgiving holiday and I'll be with my family, so I unfortunately won't have anything new up until Friday (and that's my Friday, not yours, which is my Thursday.)

  4. Great review! This sounds like a pretty unique film, I'm definitely going to try to see it by the end of the year.