Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012.
Directed by Colin Trevorrow.
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jeff Garlin, Jenica Bergere, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Kristen Bell.
Three magazine employees respond to an unusual classified ad from a guy seeking a companion for time travel.
The premise of Safety Not Guaranteed is fairly simple – Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson), an arrogant reporter at a Seattle Magazine heads out to the country to research for an article on an advert placed in a newspaper (“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me… Safety not guaranteed”). He takes along two interns with him, the shy nerdy Arnau (Karan Soni) and the awkward, self-contained Darius (Aubrey Plaza). They find the poster: the paranoid, initially ridiculous Kenneth (Mark Duplass), but when Darius signs up to be his partner in time travel she starts to see more to him, and the three begin to wonder if there wasn’t some truth to the advert after all.
It’s a premise that could so easily have belonged to an altogether different film, a zany comedy with paper-thin characters and a cartoonish central character, but Safety Not Guaranteed is not that film. Rather, it’s both funnier and more likeable than we had any right to expect. Duplass’ Kenneth, potentially grating, is a fully fleshed-out character; Never a caricature, and ultimately vindicated in his beliefs (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you). The film doesn’t make fun of him, and his relationship with Darius is genuinely touching. The chemistry between Duplass and Plaza goes a long way to making you care about these characters, and the same goes for the rest of the cast, from the way Jeff’s initially seedy attempts to find an old flame leads to something altogether more tender, to Arnau’s timid attempts to resist being forced into things he doesn’t want to do. Even minor characters have something to them, each one has dimensions. It’s a sad state of affairs when believable character development in a comedy comes as a surprise, but that’s exactly how it feels, seeing people doing things that they probably would do feels refreshing, and credit has to go to Connolly for his smart script, but also to Plaza, Duplass, Johnson and Soni for resisting the temptation to play up to their characters extremities (nerdy, arrogant, flat-out crazy) and instead bringing to fore the more genuine traits.
The dialogue is pinpoint, ranging from Clerks style pop culture gags (Stormtroopers are ‘blue collar workers’, and therefore ignorant to the workings of a laser) to intelligent dialogue that manages to feel neither over-written nor out of place. Neither of these are easy to get right, and Connolly has managed both.
The obvious narrative turns are avoided, loose ends are left untied, and there are no big speeches at the end; the nerdy character doesn’t become a heartthrob, and perhaps most surprisingly, a scene in which Kenneth plays his own song to Darius is not at all saccharine or embarrassing. Particularly intriguing is a discussion between the two about their reasons for travelling back in which both characters are essentially lying, and yet the film plays them as moments of startling emotional realization for both of them. It’s a smart scene, exposing the superficial nature of standard character motivation, and suggesting that maybe the best reason for going back in time is simply to be somewhere else. What could so easily have been a zany comedy about zany people is in fact a sweet, melancholy film about the pitfalls of regret and nostalgia, without ever seeming ponderous, or succumbing to sentimentality.
Safety Not Guaranteed, then, is one of the best comedies of the year – a smart, sweet little thing that manages to be more than the sum of its parts. The team behind this are reportedly working on a remake of 80’s Disney classic Flight of the Navigator, with a bigger budget and hopefully a bigger audience. If Safety Not Guaranteed is anything to go by, they’ll work wonders.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★