Safety Not Guaranteed
Two words spring to my mind as I reflect on today’s movie: Wasted Potential. I’ll explain why shortly, but first some background.
In the fall of 1997, content was running a little bit low in the Classified ad section of Backwoods Home Magazine, (which looks like a fantastic publication; this month’s cover stories include, “Bartering Basics”, “Food Security”, “Suturing Skin”, “Gun Scopes”, and “Great Chili”, but I digress). So staff writer John Silveira was tasked with coming up with something to fill the space. In a stroke of creative genius he came up with the following ad:
Flash forward to the present day, and the ad has become something of a cult phenomenon, reprinted numerous times, and in numerous venues. In another stroke of genius, it was determined that this ad might just provide an excellent basis for a movie. Unfortunately this is where the genius came to an end, because despite all the potential for awesomeness provided by Silveira’s original ad, the task for bringing this to the screen was tasked to first-time screenwriter Derek Connolly, and first-time director Colin Trevorrow. The combination proves so inept that, having seen the fruits of their “creative” labors, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Yakety Sax” starts playing any time they’re in a room together.
Honestly, the film’s premise: what if the time travel were real, and a magazine reporter (along with a couple interns) set out to investigate the guy that placed it, is so incredibly loaded with potential that it would take buffoons of colossal proportions to mess it up, in Connolly and Trevorrow we’ve found those buffoons. Instead of making a compelling, or even interesting film, Connolly/Trevorrow (and honestly I’m not sure who to blame more here,) instead throw every “quirky indie-movie” cliché that they can think of at the screen. The result is a boring, disconnected, self-indulgent cinematic mess that even a couple first-rate acting performances can’t hope to save.
The film stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius, an implausibly named intern at a Seattle-based magazine. In a subtle-as-a-Mack-Truck voiceover backstory, we learn that Darius is angsty and damaged. However, her life takes a turn for the interesting when Jeff (Jake Johnson) a reporter at the magazine selects her, along with fellow intern/token minority/nerd Arnau (Karan Soni) to do a story based on time-traveler ad, (which has been slightly tweaked to fit the Seattle-area setting, and emphasize the “safety not guaranteed” line.)
Of course, it turns out that Jeff only took the story as an excuse to visit the small town listed in the ad, so he can look-up an ex-girlfriend from when he was in high school. Therefore, while Darius meets and has clichéd, unbelievable, and all too predictable interaction with Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the man that placed the ad, Jeff and Arnau depart into their own, mostly separate, movie about the making the most of the stage of life you’re in, or something like that.
Meanwhile, back in the main plot, Kenneth might be a crazy person, or he might really know how to build a time machine, and there may or may not be people tyring to stop him. Darius just likes that he’s damaged, and, because the screenplay calls for it, falls in love with him.
Honestly, it’s hard to even care enough about the plot to try to recap it. The direction is so disconnected and the writing so slipshod that its hard to make sense of it all. There’s a sort of vague theme of wistfulness and regret over missed opportunities, but it’s somehow both ham-handed and poorly articulated. As alluded to above, Jeff, in particular, spends much of the film in what feels an entirely separate movie… without an ending.
In the Darius/Kenneth story I think we’re supposed to, at least occasionally, wonder whether or not Kenneth really has invented a working means of time-travel. Unfortunately, we’re never given any reason to believe Kenneth might actually be anything more than what he appears to be on the surface, a sad-sack loser with a dream of undoing his past regrets. His character simply doesn’t mesh with the spirit of the time-traveler ad, and I, for one, find it impossible to believe that Kenneth could have written it.
Aubrey Plaza, does do an admirable job of carrying the film. Her combination of pathos, vulnerability, and humor makes Darius both a likable, and believable character. Jeff, while not really likable, comes off as probably the most real, and believable character, thanks almost entirely to Johnson’s commitment to both the character’s douche-baggary, and underlying sadness.
This film, for some reason that defies all explanation, has received near-universal critical acclaim. I can only assume that we’re looking at a Donnie Darko situation here. These reviewers, were somehow fooled by the combination of an intriguing premise, indy-film touchstones (which are all… tediously, checked off), and general weirdness, into thinking that this movie is good. It isn’t. However, based on the film’s success, I have no doubt that Connolly/Trevorrow will receive the opportunity to make a couple more movies. As was the case with Richard Kelly, these resulting cinematic disasters will cause at least some critics to look back and realize that Safety Not Guaranteed, was really no good in the first place. Do yourself a favor, and avoid seeing this movie.