by Matt Smith
A film like Safety Not Guaranteed is ready-made for acclaim at a festival like Sundance. It has likable, interesting, and just-quirky-enough characters played by a variety of up-and-coming, vaguely recognizable faces for the mainstream viewers, and who are also well-regarded by those of us who actually keep up with such things. It’s low-budget, high-concept, and shot through with both humor and pathos. In fact, as described above, it might seem that Safety Not Guaranteed is almost too pat, too familiar, maybe a bit redundant. And it is – almost.
It’s saved from the lower rings of indie comedy hell because the film’s particular high-concept sci-fi premise is intriguing, and because those vaguely familiar actors are enjoyable to watch. The film is brought to life by a delightful Aubrey Plaza, whose Darius is a stronger-willed variation on her deadpan performance as April Ludgate from Parks and Recreation. As an intern at a Seattle newspaper, she becomes entangled in an investigation into a mysterious ad placed by a man from a small town in Washington state that reads:
“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.”
The man who placed the ad, Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass, is an eccentric who works at a local grocery, and whose free time seems to be spent developing an engine that will allow time travel to be possible. Of course everyone assumes he’s totally nuts, and when he begins spinning stories about being followed by “them” and the death of his previous girlfriend (who is alive and well), it doesn’t really help his credibility. Darius befriends Kenneth after her boss, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), fails to approach him without scaring him away. Through a relationship based on deception and lies, she begins to gain Kenneth’s trust, and she in turn is trusted with the time travel mission’s success.
As each character navigated their ways through the various relationships set up during the course of the movie–Darius and Kenneth, Jeff and an ex from high school, nerdy intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and a couple of girls picked up outside a convenience store–I found their actions and reactions truthful and honest. Despite the ludicrous and often contrived nature of their encounters, I felt that what the film was trying to get at, and was mostly succeeding in, was showing us the world just as it is in all its subversive quirkiness and oddball sensibilities that might be normally subsumed beneath a more, well, acceptable surface. Though Darius, Arnau and Jeff are all on some level both interesting and unremarkable, they are still a group of people who could conceivably exist in reality, but go unnoticed because of what they do with their lives.
Duplass’s performance as Kenneth is one of the real pleasures in this regard. A well-known and capable multi-hyphenate filmmaker in his own right, Duplass has been making a name for himself as an actor hell-bent on playing characters who are just south of normal proper. Here, as in The League and Humpday, he imbues his character with a natural warmth that lures in a trusting audience before revealing the slightly abnormal stilted man-child that serves as his true self. Duplass’s Kenneth is the type of guy who says things like “my calibrations are flipping pinpoint” and makes it sound completely natural.
But there is a major problem. The compression of digital video for the film’s theatrical release is subpar, and that is inexcusable. In some scenes shot with low light or which feature a lot of artificial lighting, pixelation and coloration become serious issues blown up to the size of a theater screen. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the cinematographer, but seeing as how there’s no way of knowing if this is merely a release issue or an overall visual issue until the Blu-ray, and even then, if the compression remains the same and is merely duped into the Blu format, the problem will remain.
This may sound like I’m nitpicking, but I’m not. Even low-grade digital photography can look consistent when compressed correctly. But the camera used to shoot this film was clearly not low-grade, as evidenced by the abundance of crystal clear images which exhibit virtually no grain. I don’t know of the releasing company dropped the ball or what, but it is distracting to go from one scene to the next looking like the first was professionally shot and lit and the next was shot by simply picking up the camera and fooling around with the F-stop and shutter speed a little bit.
Additionally, the film leaves a bit too much undone with its ending. We are never given clear resolution on Jeff and his ex, or on the story and how it will pan out with the newspaper, and it’s not exactly clear where, if anywhere, Darius and Kenneth might actually be traveling to in the past, except that it’s 2001. That is significant I guess, if you imagine that what you have just watched is a hip comedy version of the Kubrick film. But this in no way justifies the ambiguities left by just about every central conflict in the film by its somewhat abrupt (though still fitting and well-done) ending.
In any case, you could do worse at the multiplex than Safety Not Guaranteed. While it may be a bit too much like other indie comedies of the past couple of years, it is buoyed by a great cast and a premise that keeps you intrigued through to the end. And it’s actually quite funny, which I guess I’ll mention now that I’m through writing about it.
4.5 out of 5 stars.