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Safety Not Guaranteed

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Safety Not Guaranteed showed up at the top of several SXSW lists I've seen. The premise is a group of reporters answer a classified ad from someone who claims to be a time-traveler. Starring Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Jake Johnson (New Girl) and Mark Duplass (every indie comedy these days). Jeff Garlin and Mary-Lynn Rajskub are also in it. The director is Colin Trevorrow and the writer is Derek Connolly; they've worked together a few times before, but this is the first feature film for both of them.

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Cool premise. A friend of mine (David Roark, for those who know him) saw this when he was at SXSW and really liked it.

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Cool premise. A friend of mine (David Roark, for those who know him) saw this when he was at SXSW and really liked it.

David here. I'm not sure why I've never used the A&F forums before. I've known about them, and I know many of the folks who make up the community. Anyway, I'm here now and plan to stay.

As Andrew said, I saw Safety Not Guaranteed at SxSW. It was easily my favorite film of the festival and is probably my favorite film of 2012 so far (next to Jeff Who Lives at Home). You can read my capsule review at Paste.

I must admit, though, I'm a sucker for anything Duplass (their sense of humor just does it for me), and Mark is absolutely hilarious in the lead role. Speaking of the Duplass brothers, I also saw The Do-Deca Pentathlon at SxSW, which proved great as well. They actually filmed it before Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home, but it's just now being released (you can read my capsule of it at Paste, too).

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David here.

Welcome!

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This just opened in South Florida and I'm surprised it hasn't been talked about more at A&F. It's easily my favorite film of the year-- a low key, emotional home run. I admit a weakness for Aubrey Plaza, but the rest of the relatively unfamiliar cast is wonderful as well.

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While there's a lot about this movie that doesn't really work for me, its big sappy heart won me over anyway.

I can't say much without toeing the line of spoilers, so...

It dares to be romantic in a way we don't see much anymore. I revisited Roxanne recently, and there's something about this film's sweetness and sentimentality that reminded me of that. It's about adults who think back to what the world looked like when they were childlike and dreamers (or at least teenagers and dreamers). And in the end it wraps up the way a childlike dreamer would want it to end. The film's good intentions carried me along when its characterization and naivete didn't.

I'm frustrated by how far the movie goes to convince me of its adult-world realism in some aspects (the Seattle details, the persuasively detailed environments) but not in others (the "government agents," who are about as convincing as characters from a Men in Black movie).

Aubrey Plaza's definitely the film's biggest strength. The way she slowly warms to Kevin is so convincing and charming. It's to her credit that I came as close to believing in that relationship as I did.

I like Mark Duplass most of the time, but here his dopey-ness felt a little "put on," not nearly as convincing and endearing as, oh, Ryan Gosling's Lars. Lars and the Real Girl took on a similarly daunting challenge and succeeded in every way, beyond anything I would have hoped. While we're asked to go along with its skeptical, rational characters as they try to deal with a character who believes in a fantasy, we (like them) come to see the value in the fantasy, and everybody learns something. Still, I can tell that the filmmakers know how damaged Lars is, and they take seriously how long the journey will be before he's likely to have anything like a healthy relationship. (The Fisher King is another film that deals with this in a way that works for me.)

By contrast, Safety's Kevin is a character so clearly, deeply damaged by what he's been through that I can't quite buy the way Darius -- who seems fairly reasonable to me -- is willing to let herself fall for him; nor can I ignore the way the film ends up romanticizing and excusing his self-delusion, crimes, and lies. This film's happy, hopeful ending is a little too pie-in-the-sky for me. It's not convincing enough, nor do I think it's been earned.

But again, what the movie wants to achieve makes me want to cut it a lot of slack, because we so rarely see anybody try to achieve this anymore. This team gives it a good college try, and I'm glad they did.

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I like the cast and premise...but I confess, the trailer kind of makes me think of K-Pax. "Is he really a _______ or is he just crazy????"

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I'm somewhat baffled that this has been getting such good press. I found it completely unsatisfying. FWIW, here's an edited version of a review that I wrote after seeing it, mostly as an exercise for myself (sorry for pasting such a wall of text, but I don't yet have anywhere else to put this and link to):

It’s no surprise that Safety Not Guaranteed has an extremely non-descriptive title. This is a movie so safe that most of the characters are cyphers or stereotypes, so we don’t have to worry about them; so safe that all the emotion is totally superficial, so there’s not even the slightest risk of getting uncomfortable or upset; so safe that real suspense is impossible, because it’s clear early on that this movie takes place in a world where, despite the token traumatic pasts of two characters, nothing very bad ever happens to anyone. It would be unfair not to add at once that the proceedings are often very funny, but the laughter is empty.

Of course, the title actually comes from the cryptic classified ad prominently featured in both the trailer and the poster: “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” This ad creates some interest during a period of collective writer’s block in the offices of Seattle magazine, where a writer named Jeff (Jake Johnson) volunteers to take two interns and follow it up in search of a story.

One of the interns is our heroine, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), who, judging from an awkward job interview at a restaurant where she reminisces like she’s on a first date or something, is a girl who badly needs to be loved. Confirmation that she’s lonely and undersexed comes in a weird scene with her father (Jeff Garlin), who gently chides her for never bringing boys home. The other intern is a charming but introverted Indian biology student named Arnau (Karan Soni), a perfect example of a stereotype in chemically pure form. Since Arnau is male, geeky, and Asian, he doesn’t need to be loved; he only needs to get laid. Meanwhile, Jeff has an ulterior motive for volunteering for the mission: his high school girlfriend from two decades before lives nearby. He’s very open about his intentions for her, which are simply to have one of the nice casual hookups he seems to be good at, with no muss, no fuss, and no rough stuff. That’s the sort of thing that never works out as planned and we know it, but we shall see that the film is a jump ahead of us here.

It turns out the ad was placed by a rather eccentric recluse named Kenneth (Mark Duplass in a good performance that isn’t enough to save the movie), who rejects Jeff’s advances on the (unintentionally self-referential) ground that Jeff is a shallow person, one who doesn’t know pain and suffering. Darius has better luck, convincing Kenneth she has what it takes in a terrific scene set in the grocery store where Kenneth works by acting sexy and dangerous and showing that she has a talent for fast quips as well as untimely self-disclosure. Here, as in most of the film, the dialogue is quite good, and Aubrey Plaza owns the scene, conveying the vulnerability beneath Darius’s bravado. It’s the opposite of the strange job interview from early in the film: there, she showed too much of herself and was dismissed by a manager who (inevitably) was looking for an employee rather than a human being; here she conceals her true self and is accepted by a man who, it turns out, is looking for a full partner whom he can fully trust.

For Kenneth, though he comes across at first as a run-of-the-mill paranoiac and all-around kook (he claims to be the only person in the world who really understands what he calls the “cat in the box” theory), gradually turns into much more than that. He too is damaged and needs to be loved, and, like Aubrey, he has a death in his past that provides his motivation for going back in time. (Amusingly, no motivations are broached other than the purely personal; the only suggestion that it might be interesting to go anywhere in the past beyond one’s own life is made by Jeff in the brief interview that convinces Kenneth he’s not serious.) The film is at its best in the scenes between Darius and Kenneth, as Darius’s tough-girl act fades away and, in the course of their preparations for the trip to the past (everything from target practice with handguns to stealing lasers from a munitions factory), they begin to know each other as people. It also isn’t afraid to be absurd, as in a scene where they make progress in their relationship through Kenneth’s accidental revelation of a personal secret that touches on an emotional scar from his childhood. It’s a silly thing, but it makes sense for the character, and in a queer way it’s touching.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the whole film. There’s also Jeff resuming his relationship with his old flame Liz (Jenica Bergere), who in the interim has been married and then abandoned by her husband. At no point does their relationship gain any emotional weight, and when the film lets it go, I didn’t feel much for either character—only bewilderment that this thread of the story, which took up quite a chunk of screen time, was dropped without resolution in such an offhand manner.

It gets worse from there. Jeff then returns to the hotel room and picks up Arnau—who up until now, more than halfway through the film, has been used strictly and solely for comic relief—for a wild night on the town. At Jeff’s instigation, Arnau hooks up with the first girls he meets (three of them, I think, not that it matters) outside a convenience store. Jeff responds to Arnau’s fears and hesitations with gentle coaching, sagely reminding him that his biological clock is ticking and he won’t be twenty-one forever, and they all end up spending the night in a motel, where lo, the poor Indian has a life-changing experience.

The problem with this is that it’s not actually clear that anything has changed. Except that he’s sleeping in the car the next day (isn’t that clever), Arnau’s special night seems to make no difference at all. Not only do the hook-ups not have the importance they were promised, they’re completely forgotten the minute they’re over. The film has so little interest in the convenience store girls as characters that not only does none of them say a word, we get only brief glimpses of their faces.

This is not satire or social commentary. It’s just indifferent storytelling. We spend inordinate amounts of time following characters who can hardly even be called such down dead-end storylines that do nothing. One might also complain about what amounts to a glorification of mindless sex for its own sake—I mean, it’s not like Arnau has a raging libido; his only reason for being there in the first place is that Jeff thinks, which no one questions, that it’s shameful to be a virgin at twenty-two—but I got the impression not so much that the film approved of all the goings-on, as that it simply didn’t care. It seemed like no one involved had even thought about the matter.

And then there’s the ending. We knew all along that Darius was concealing from Kenneth that she was a reporter. However, in a third-act twist, it turns out that Kenneth has his secrets too. It’s no spoiler to say there’s an emotional crisis as awful depths of perfidy are revealed. But it’s a crisis that no one’s heart is in. It all feels rote, a duty that the characters do for the sake of form, and it’s no surprise when the whole thing is casually dismissed for no particular reason. The ending itself could be seen as a clever twist or a copout, depending on how well the rest of the film has captured one’s goodwill. In my case, it didn’t come off well.

It’s not horrible. The performances are good, the jokes are funny, and the dialogue is sharp. It’s watchable enough. And it doesn’t embrace an identity as a dumb romantic comedy; it tries to say something and be something. Ultimately, though, it’s just not carefully crafted enough and it doesn’t hold together. Neither its head nor its heart are satisfying. Coming out of the theater, I knew I had had a reasonably diverting hour and a half; but I also knew that, like the pointless one-night stands and the manufactured drama of what passed for a climax, it would have made no difference if the film itself had not happened at all.

Edited by Rushmore

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Gonna have to agree with Greg P and David Roark. Great movie, I love how it really wasn't about time travel, it was more about relationships, and who we pick as the one to walk through life with us.

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What is wrong with me? My critical filter must be out of wack, but I really love this film. It is very keyed into the idea that sexual fantasies outside of legit relationships - fulfilled or not, are narratives that corrupt the order of our lives. They present themselves as natural, but they aren't.

Edited by M. Leary

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M. Leary said:

It is very keyed into the idea that sexual fantasies outside of legit relationships - fulfilled or not, are narratives that corrupt the order of our lives. They present themselves as natural, but they aren't.

Yes, this is well said. It's been a few months since I saw the film in theaters, but I thought the Jake Johnson character/narrative arc, in particular, really gave this film an added dimension that I appreciated.

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I thought that was great too. The more I think about this movie, the more I love it.

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Count me in as an avid admirer also. Everything about this film felt so refreshingly original and fun. I'm looking forward to picking up the DVD.

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What is wrong with me? My critical filter must be out of wack, but I really love this film. It is very keyed into the idea that sexual fantasies outside of legit relationships - fulfilled or not, are narratives that corrupt the order of our lives. They present themselves as natural, but they aren't.

Yes, Suz and I really dug this about this film too. The one seemingly dissonant note in this regard is the film's apparent tolerant amusement at the writer Jeff setting up the Indian intern, Arnau, for a one-night stand. So, sexual fantasy outside of legit relationships corrupts, but meaningless sex is all right as long as we have no illusions about it? Do you read this differently?

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I thought that was a bit weak, though it does continue to raise the question for us about its value relative to the other "romances" happening in the script.

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I don't know I read it as a bit demeaning of Arnau for him to do that, and it as showing us that he is a bit of a douche. That Arnau gave in nonetheless seems to show how insecure he is. It's almost showing three different kind of relationships, and heightening the relationship of the main character and the time traveler as the right kind of relationship. In that way it kinda reminded me of that Zach Braff movie The Last Kiss, another one of my favorites.

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Huh, I didn't like this very much. I though Mark Duplass was easily the best part of the film, and he had some nice chemistry with Aubrey Plaza, but that's about it. I guess I'm too much of a stylist to let the couple of thematic gestures win the movie for me, even if I agree with the sentiments expressed in the final moments. Overall this needed a couple more re-writes to figure out what to do with the rest of the film.

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I have to say, I really enjoyed it. My two complaints were: the ending was flat out wrong - sudden, inconclusive, and switching genres from romantic comedy to science fiction; and Arnau's one night stand was out of place regarding everything else the film said about relationships. Nonetheless, the themes and the efforts of the filmmakers far outshined the flaws in my opinion.

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I have to say, I really enjoyed it. My two complaints were: the ending was flat out wrong - sudden, inconclusive, and switching genres from romantic comedy to science fiction; and Arnau's one night stand was out of place regarding everything else the film said about relationships. Nonetheless, the themes and the efforts of the filmmakers far outshined the flaws in my opinion.

I'm with you on the second complaint, but not the first. I thought the ending was perfect — not a genre "switch," but a confirmation of ambiguous genre indications.

"Science fiction," of course, is not a genre that excludes any other genre, including romantic comedy. The genre question hanging over the whole film is, are we watching a rom-com in a sci-fi world, or a rom-com about a character with sci-fi delusions? I wanted the answer one way or another, and I was entirely satisfied with the climactic answer.

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I have to say, I really enjoyed it. My two complaints were: the ending was flat out wrong - sudden, inconclusive, and switching genres from romantic comedy to science fiction; and Arnau's one night stand was out of place regarding everything else the film said about relationships. Nonetheless, the themes and the efforts of the filmmakers far outshined the flaws in my opinion.

I'm with you on the second complaint, but not the first. I thought the ending was perfect — not a genre "switch," but a confirmation of ambiguous genre indications.

"Science fiction," of course, is not a genre that excludes any other genre, including romantic comedy. The genre question hanging over the whole film is, are we watching a rom-com in a sci-fi world, or a rom-com about a character with sci-fi delusions? I wanted the answer one way or another, and I was entirely satisfied with the climactic answer.

Hmm. I'll have to rewatch it with that in mind. On a first viewing I never sensed any ambiguity about genre indications or hints that the time travel was possible, which is why I found the ending abrupt. But maybe I missed something indicating the nature of the sci-fi beliefs.

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(sorry for pasting such a wall of text, but I don't yet have anywhere else to put this and link to):

I don't mind walls of texts here, but you are always welcome to submit reviews here.

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