Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Written by: Derek Connolly
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Mark Duplass
Safety Not Guaranteed is the title of director Colin Trevorrow's recent film. But it's also, at the core of the movie's plot, a warning in a want ad that seeks determined time travelers.
Satisfaction isn't guaranteed either. Just like the principal characters may or may not journey through the 4th dimension, find a better world or even achieve a sense of belonging with a fellow human being, audiences may not take to this quirky offering's resolution.
It doesn't mean that Safety Not Guaranteed makes for a bad afternoon. It's hard not to warm to its flawed characters and their crackpot dreams. They have all the pitiful attraction of a box full of sick puppies.
And charm — my, how Safety Not Guaranteed just seethes with charm.
What the flick lacks is any conclusion that will leave you cheering or weeping. True to its existentialist roots, it claps to a close with an emotional whimper, not a bang.
That may be just how Safety Not Guaranteed likes it. The entire plot revolves around a head-scratcher: Has Kenneth, played by the seemingly world-weary Mark Duplass from The League, truly developed a time machine, or is he only nuts? Note, I say "only nuts," as he's clearly touched in the head and pathetically heartbroken, still hung up on a past love who didn't spare him the time of day. He has fine company in the loony bin, though, as everyone in the film is psychologically dysfunctional to some high-crippling degree. These other main players — journalists Darius (Aubrey Plaza), Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and Arnau (Karan Soni) — are all seeking romance as well as the truth about Kenneth, blundering after both.
Winning ensemble so far, right? Indeed they are, and considering Big Beach Films, producers of Little Miss Sunshine, is the money behind this bittersweet little beauty, you can be confident you'll get what you pay for. Expect damaged souls careening into each other in pursuit of love and meaning — the safety of their fractured hearts not guaranteed, in case the double-meaning escaped you — and you'll be correct.
But will you be fulfilled by Safety Not Guaranteed's conclusion? It's anybody's guess. I don't have the venom in me necessary to shoot down the entire premise of the film by revealing its ending. Just suffice it to say, you're duly warned.
Cause for precaution ends there, though, as Safety Not Guaranteed delivers a surprising volume of quality for what's largely a sophomore effort. This is no by-the-numbers tear-jerker machined by a practiced hand like Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson. Director Trevorrow can number it his first "real" film, considering his only other work of note was as co-director and co-writer of the 2005 TV movie Gary: Under Crisis. Derek Connolly, the sole Safety screenwriter, also co-wrote Gary, so this is the first "whole" notch on his belt too.
For a partnership of relative unknowns, Safety Not Guaranteed has an accomplished script and was made with a sophisticated grasp of how to shoot for understated emotional impact. Scenes don't stick to close or mid-range shots; the filmmakers capably group the actors into intimate framings or minimize them against natural vistas, as tone demands. Trevorrow may be fresh talent, but his instincts are honed. And for the kind of naturalistic dialogue Connolly serves up, this style of direction allows plain speech to truly sing at times.
The cast is solidly suited for this. Safety Not Guaranteed features a fistful of actors best known for their television work. But the work for which they're best known is ably occupying roles that are quirky and understated. Nobody's trying to shoehorn their style into the subtlety and clumsiness of the film. They're all veteran at playing clumsy, subtle people.
Aubrey Plaza, April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation (Plaza's notable sullen role), brings a much-needed vulnerability to Darius in Safety Not Guaranteed. Her learned talent of seeming sullen and numb is the character's mainstay, but she tops her usual 2-D persona by adding tenderness. My sole complaint was that when big drama was called for, Plaza couldn't quite go from mute to mammoth. She fell short of what the climax demanded, likely unaccustomed to shattering her reserved veneer.
Everyone else fits Safety Not Guaranteed as comfortably as a fraying pair of All-Stars. Mark Duplass is the worn-out dude in The League, and here he plays a guy worn out by reality. Jake M. Johnson isn't too different from his role as Nick on The New Girl. And though I don't know Karan Soni's other work as well, I doubt he gets many parts beyond Saftey's "nerdy Indian-American dude" Arnau.
It all amounts to just over 90 minutes of heartstring tugging for the cynical set. All the notes you expect from the bittersweet "dramedy" subgenre are here: Lovelorn eccentrics; bungling capers; childhood reminiscences; unconventional vehicle chases; youth gone wild.
Safety Not Guaranteed has the Big Beach Films brand all over it, and if you embraced the aggressively offbeat Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning, or similar films like King of California, you won't be disappointed in the dialogue, acting and direction.
Whether you'll still be swooning by the end credits, only the future will tell.
I think this is going to be good. I like the actors and I like the melancholy tone the movie shifts toward. It feels familiar, but I'm hoping this will rise above other lesser similar flicks. I'd like to say I shifted time and helped save it from itself. But I did not. So I will stay in the here and now, merely hoping it's as good as I would've made it had I gone forward and performed postproduction in an era when it would be called prefuturepastpropostduction. (That's really what it's called then, and that's why I won't have any part if it. Well, that and the fact the Fractal Time Lords have me under Mandelbrot topological dimensional arrest. I mean, c'mon y'all...
A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it's not open.