Fri 15 Jun 2012
Writing this review for “Safety Not Guaranteed” turned out to be far more difficult than initially expected. I tried the pithy time travel joke opening and scrapped it after a few sentences. Then came the synopsis approach: A magazine staff on the hunt to see what kind of guy places a personal ad looking for a companion to go back in time. That devolved into a book report and had to go. So I guess the only thing left is to admit to have throwing away those ideas and somehow arrive here: the end of the first paragraph.
With that out of the way, what potential audiences should know is that this high concept film plays out very much like an independent dramedy, with more than a few drops of mumblecore thrown in thanks to the involvement of Mark Duplass (as the man who thinks he’s found a way to travel through time). None of that is a bad thing but there’s an obvious low budget production factor and depending on your ability to look past some of the worst cinematography and camerawork of 2012, it could make it harder to connect to the characters.
Perhaps because of the shoddy visuals, gravitating to the heart of the story is the best place to go to make the experience enjoyable and despite a number of missteps filmmaking-wise, this connected with me more than almost any other movie of the year. The central issues of loss, regret, and connection are universal and ground the sci-fi backdrop – as long as you aren’t put off by Aubrey Plaza’s acting style (deadpan, at times emotionally ambiguous). Intertwining with the main relationship between Duplass and Plaza is Jake M. Johnson’s ulterior motive for taking the story: being paid to revisit a town where his high school crush still resides and looking to rekindle the innocence lost as he’s attempted to climb the professional ladder. Thankfully, rather than compete with the overlying narrative, this subplot helps round out the characters and make this a feature film, since the main thrust of things on its own might have made for a better short film.
As alluded to, despite the film’s ability to connect, there are plenty of examples for lazy screenwriting and almost amateurish presentation. Ancillary characters seem placed as afterthoughts or, in some cases, excuses in order to ask for favors to bring in better-known actors for a day (Jeff Garlin, Kristin Bell). Then there’s the manner in which events resolve. I’d like to think things are a bit ambiguous though others who I’ve talked to feel certain about the ending and I can understand why (I prefer to go with my opinion of course). Also, there are a couple of government agents who show up near the end to fill in more info about Duplass which don’t act at all like their real-life counterparts would and end up detracting from the story like the supremely obvious plot devices they are.
All that being said, and fully acknowledging the myriad of problems in the filmmaking and script, “Safety Not Guaranteed” still gets a 3.5 out of 5. I’m a bit biased due to my appreciation for movies about relationships mixed with a little science fiction but even if you’re not a sci-fi geek, those elements are in the background and it’s about how these characters are able to connect with one another that matters. It’s easy to see why this has been popular with festivals. As long as you are a fan of independent film, this fits the bill for an afternoon escape but can easily wait for the home market if you’d rather save that extra cash for one of the bigger blockbusters still to come this summer.