By: debbie lynn elias
Thanks to a shared vision of director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, and stand out performances of a small ensemble cast led by Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is a quirky, charming, remarkably thoughtful and entertaining film that is, in essence, a beautiful love story cloaked in mystery and magic. Described by Duplass as “half time travel film, but half indie romantic comedy”, there is never a guarantee of safety when the heart is involved and SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is all about heart – finding one’s heart in one’s self and in others. And as for the time travel element? For Duplass it’s “less about the 1.21 gigawatts and the flux capacitor and more about why people would want to time travel…the need to eject from your current station in life and find a better place.” And by the way, I think I can safely say that a surprise ending will have you gasp, smile and fill with joy in the most unexpected and satisfying fashion in what I believe will be the sleeper hit of 2012.
Some years back, a small little personal ad actually ran in some magazines and online, seeking a companion to engage in time travel. Payment will be made on return back to the present. You must bring your own weapons. The time traveler has only done this once before. And oh yes, “SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.” Running with that little true life tidbit, Derek Connolly crafted the story of Darius Britt, a young intern at a Seattle magazine. Lost in life since the death of her mother some years back, Darius has floundered, burdened with self-blame, sorrow, sadness and cynicism. But when the opportunity arises to turn this personal ad into an investigative journalism opportunity, Darius jumps at the chance. Joining her boss Jeff and fellow intern Arnau, the three embark on a quest to either win a Pulitzer with some outstanding expose reporting proving time travel or proving “Kenneth” is a nut job, or fall flat on their collective faces and be laughed out of the magazine. But on their arrival in Ocean View, Washington, they are met with more than meets the eye.
Time travelling Kenneth is a paranoid and suspicious, yet affable, young man. Believing he’s being followed by government agents, he runs around town with his own version of covert ops, stealing lasers from scientific companies, immersing himself in technical calculations, physical training and hand-to-hand combat, and making endless plans. Silently excited at the thought of “what if”, Darius is elected, or rather, volunteers, to be the undercover contact with Kenneth. Immediately drawn to her, Kenneth slowly takes her into his confidence. As the two grow ever closer, Darius learns Kenneth’s reason for wanting to go back in time, a reason that surprisingly touches Darius and potentially affecting her cover.
In the meantime, Jeff is off on his own agenda – seeking out a lost love from high school. Finding himself emotionally transported in time, he too ponders “what if”. And as for Arnau, “what if” he could go back in time, or forward in time, and actually turn from bookish nerd to chick magnet?
As for the acting, let’s start with Aubrey Plaza. Having just seen her in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and familiar with her tv work, I can’t say enough about her. Her deadpan styling is perfect for Darius and I can see no other actress handling the part with the ease and confidence of Plaza. She tugs at your heart as you watch Darius get more involved and interested in Kenneth and his project. She has an intensity and seriousness that resonates, yet she lets you see Darius’ heart ache and grow. Interestingly, for Plaza, “I’ve never been the lead of a movie before so I prepared a lot. I wanted to always be really aware of what I was feeling every moment in the movie and that everything was tracking. I really paid attention. I wanted [Darius] to have a full transformation.” Calling on some physical adroitness for training sequences to ready Darius for time travel with Kenneth, Plaza joined Mark Duplass in the wild for gunplay and horseplay. Not a fan of guns, by film’s end Plaza “found it freeing” to be shooting at Duplass as practice, while “it was fun to run around in the woods. It was beautiful too.”
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Jake Johnson more. Not just a smart ass, as Jeff we see a heart and redemptive value, sincere appreciation for life and others and Johnson just peels back the layers like an onion. Great job from him and with this performance, moves him into an entirely new level of character performance. According to Johnson, “We were definitely allowed to improvise but it wasn’t an open canvas improv. [Trevorrow] knew exactly what he wanted. It’s not that you improvised jokes, you had to improvise on story.”
When it comes to Mark Duplass, the man can act his way out of a paper bag (Oh wait! He has. With “Baghead”!). Here, as Kenneth, we see a new and deeper side of Duplass’ abilities. A frenzied, slightly screwy guy who, in certain moments reminds one of a boy playing army out in the woods, or being a secret agent or a spy, then just as quickly flips to a confident, committed, strong man with a heart. Out of all of Duplass’ roles, this is my personal favorite and he just soars. Attributing the excellence of his performance to Trevorrow’s direction and their complimentary compatibility of style, Duplass was given the latitude and time to work on his performance. “It’s a cool movie. Aubrey and I have done a lot of personal comedies that are about people and about what’s going on between two people sitting on a couch normally. To get out and do something that still honored the world we came from, still very much a movie about people, but had those extra elements of action sequences and time travel stuff is fun. . .The training sequence was very fun except that those were real guns and blanks and [Aubrey] Plaza was a little freaked out. I, on the other hand, loved them. I kept making her shoot her gun at me.”
Written by Derek Connolly, the story is intelligent, well structured and well crafted with sub-plots and twists and turns that actually integrate with the main plot points. (Surprise! Surprise!) There is nothing extraneous in terms of the storyline and each character, as each are synergistic to the other, intersecting into a textured and layered tapestry – pull one thread out and the entire thing will unravel. The various, distinctly different characters and their relative positions of heartache and/or love in life are aptly chosen and cover the bases – parental love, new love, self love, pain from love, hiding from love, looking for love, remembering with jaded memory a past love. Each character stays within the confines of the specific traits of the character and develops individually, staying true to the heart of that character, but never stagnating. And much of that goes to the acting. Using a narrative device and POV of objective journalists researching a story, sets a tone of openness with no preconceived notions about anything that is about to unfold (other than the fact that a time traveler may be a nut job – which adds a quirky beauty to the entire film)….. everyone is an underdog, everyone is searching for something.
Described by Trevorrow as “danc[ing] around a bunch of tones in this movie,” while the foundation of the story is “a sci-fi question or sanity question”, “it’s an iconic love story and a great way to a sci-fi movie.” Playing on these elements, the tonal bandwidth that Trevorrow gives SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is a hybrid of a lot of different tones with a visually grainier, 70’s timeless travelled feel at its technical core that suits the thematic elements of the film. Very appealing. Very thoughtful. Very reflective. Calling on the talents of cinematographer Ben Kasulke, great use of hand held shots personalize the experience and identify each character, giving an intimacy to the journey, allowing us to connect with them and develop our own relationship with each before jumping ahead in the story and widening the scope of the story and the frame. Although shooting digitally, Kasulke and Trevorrow used older Panavision lenses from the late 70’s and 80’s which removed the digital edge of the film. “It is grainier. There’s noise. It’s scrappy. We wanted it to feel scrappy. At times it’s underlit. It has a little bit of that mumblecore feel to it. I chose a great mumblecore cinematographer to do it because I knew what kind of movie was going to shoot and I knew it was going to be big in scope and feel cinematic. Every time I know where my instincts lie, I’m going to bring somebody else in to counter-balance that. So by bringing in both mark [Duplass] and Ben [Kasulke], I feel we got that sense of emotional intimacy but then we also have some big cinematic feeling moments. It creates a new hybrid in itself.” Exquisite are the metaphorically extensive wooded exteriors contrasted with the open emptiness of the beach. With the forest adding to the shroud of mystery over Kenneth’s time travel, the cool greens are light, freeing, alive. Contrastingly, the coastline settings are vast emptiness, like the hearts of each character – empty, alone, with nothing on the horizon. Every element of SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED belies that this is Trevorrow’s directorial debut.
Most appreciated is that while there is the thematic element of time travel – ironically to be utilized to go back and fix what are now broken hearts – Trevorrow keeps the film rooted in humanity as opposed to fantastical techie science fiction. The whole time travel notion is handled with a human perspective, further adding to the personal experience.
Also a producer on SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, Duplass “had some conversations with Colin as to how to run the set and just some things I asked of him early on…like make sure we have enough time to focus on performance. I feel like the biggest mistake for a first time director is to get so obsessed with the way your shots look that you only have time for one take and then you have this beautifully cinematic well-polished turd of a film because your performances suck.” Elaborating on Trevorrow’s style, Duplass notes, “Colin’s must more mindful of the visuals than I am and my brother is. He’s very good at keeping an eye on the cinema of a film. He’s a big film fan. He had that grand scope. I think that we were a really good match with me just being constantly obsessed with performance and Colinfs very good with the visuals. And we made sure we had enough time to get performances the way we wanted to and if they weren’t working, we could improvise a little bit and make them fit. For a first time director he just banged it up!”
Agreeing with Duplass’ assessment of Trevorrow, Plaza describes him as being “an actor’s director. He’s really into actors, talking about everything with us and collaborating. He listens. He really impressed me, especially as a first time director. . .That’s one of the reasons the movie’s so good. He cared so much about the characters. He was always focused on the real issues, the performance.”
While safety may not be guaranteed, there is one thing that is a guarantee – one of my top picks of 2012, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is a guaranteed great movie-going experience.
Kenneth – Mark Duplass
Darius – Aubrey Plaza
Jeff – Jake Johnson
Arnau – Karan Soni
Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Written by Derek Connolly.