Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2012 6:52 pm 
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AUBREY PLAZA AND MARK DUPLASS IN SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

Gonzo journalistm, indie style

This movie puts an original spin on an old-fashioned premise: city sophisticate gets seduced by corn pone oddball. A young woman follows up on a kooky classified ad about wanting a partner for time travel to make a good magazine story out of it, and winds up falling for the kook.

"WANTED: Someone to go back
in time with me. This is not a joke.
P.O. Box 91, Ocean View WA 99393.
You'll get paid after we get back. Must
bring your own weapons. I have only
done this once before.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED."


Snotty, condescending Seattle magazine writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) takes two young interns along to find the creator of this ad in Ocean View, Washington and stalk him via his post office box given in the ad. Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the time-traveler, rejects Jeff at once. He's looking for sincerity and strong intent. So Darius (Aubrey Plaza) goes in. Since she's a pretty girl rather than a self-important young man, and has a bold quality, Kenneth is interested, and begins a series of tests. It's all quite silly, a bunch of martial arts gestures and small arms practice, but Darius holds her own. It gets more serious when Kenneth takes her to a tech factory to steal lasers. And then it turns out a couple of men in suits are actually following him, adding an air of genuine danger to his (now their) pursuits. This is an original and odd kind of meet-cute. It's also a comedy about the exploited interns, and a mystery about Kenneth, with Mark Duplass nicely sustains: is Kenneth a nut case, or has he really got something going on here? His nuanced, appealing but slightly weird performance keeps you guessing. This is no Michael Shannon hysteric but a man who's sympathetic and hard to pigeonhole.

Safety Not Guaranteed, starring indie auteur Duplass (who started as coproducer and then was drawn in to play the lead), could be described as a mublecore sci-fi thriller, and the mumblecore part means that the personal encounters have a raw, odd quality that makes them feel authentic -- at key moments, at least -- in ways a conventional comedy (or sci-fi movie) wouldn't achieve. I wished there could have been a few more laughs, especially since Plaza is a comic, but director Trevorrow and his actors neatly balance tone along a serio-comic edge that keeps you guessing and watching and keeps the feel fresh.

While Darius is winning the confidence of Kenneth and unconsciously being seduced by him, Jeff is on his own mission in Ocean View. He really took on this assignment (and he's doing none of the work) to reunite with an old flame from his youth who lives here now. Like a male version of Charlize Theron's deluded egomaniac in Jason Reitman's Young Adult, Jeff aims to score with Liz (Jenica Bergere), whom he's already reconnected with via Facebook. There's also a nerdy young Indian, Arnau (the wonderfully deadpan Karan Soni), the other intern, whom Jeff, revealing his kinder side, gets laid.

There's romance everywhere and none of it can be taken wholly seriously, but Kenneth seems like the real deal, either a mad scientist or a real nutcase. Artisanal sci-fi has great possibilities of trumping expensive CGI, which is dazzling but overfamiliar and therefore obviously fake. The recent story of teens with sudden super powers, Chronicle, had that quality, at least in its first half. But Safety Not Guaranteed spends most of its time on relationships. Though Kenneth appears to take his mission very seriously, whether or not it's all a bluff remains unknown till the last few frames. Hence the film acquires none of the baffling intricacy of Shane Carruth's unique 2004 Primer, where the filmmakers seemed to take time travel as seriously as their characters (who in fact apparently were time-traveling, and draw us into the baffling and dangerous intricacies of their game).

Safety Not Guaranteed has some interesting little touches, like Kenneth having Darilus deliver his grocery store coworker Shannon (William Hall Jr.) a cigar box full of cash, and a creepy child dripping snot in a diner ("We can't eat here," reacts Darius). There is a sense of transformation that permeates the cast. Kenneth potentially may be transforming from quack into eccentric science prodigy. Jeff comes down several pegs from boastful yuppie to deluded loser. Darius goes from exploited lowliest office worker to brave girl to fearless lover. The reedy Arnau, a clueless biology student only along to pad his resume, becomes a sensual Bollywood seducer through the addition of a pair of shades and a sly smile. Mark Duplass has the trickiest role, because he has to keep us guessing, and also must seem nutty and schlumpy, but with an edge of sexy danger and the possibility of actually staging some kind of sci-fi wonder. Again, the improvisational mumblecore-like style of the acting and the writing keep him mysterious and oddly attractive, the kind of guy who'd make you kind of nervous in real life but keep you watching. Meanwhile Darius remains mysterious too, at least to Kenneth, and in the role Plaza is both smoldering and tongue-in-cheek, unprepossessing and sexy.

The characters and story line of Safety Not Guaranteed, the latter based on a real Internet ad of a few years ago, may seem flimsy at times, but the edge of authenticity makes them worlds superior to the tired, boring apocalypse romantic comedy also now out, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, with its flat, incredibly boring sentimentality, Steve Carell's deadly lack of affect, and Keira Knightley's uselessly frantic effort to be appealing, as pathetically fake-cute as the scruffy terrier they carry around. Sci-fi as clich├ęd as this is just a pathetic attempt to liven up completely uninteresting "human interest" anecdotes. What director Trevorrow and his writer Derek Connolly (both in their feature debut here) have achieved in Safety not Guaranteed , on the other hand, is a casual rhythm that makes their film go down easy and feel a little bit unlike any other. Safety Not Guaranteed seems brilliant after the lameness of Seeking a Friend: but it's really not. It lacks the originality and bafflement of Carruth's Primer. But the element that is quite original in Safety is the idea of a woman getting involved with a guy she thinks is probably crazy; deceiving and spying on him, and still falling in love with him. Love conquers all, even one's confidence in the importance of sanity. It seems that deceiving him and following him in his adventure creates a degree of emotional involvement with Kenneth from which Darius can't escape. If you want to see this whole movie as a metaphor, what it's saying is that love is a wild, unpredictable, downright crazy ride. And, as Proust knew, emotion is always the great time and space traveler.

Safety Not Guaranteed debuted at Sundance January 2012 and began a limited US release June 8.

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