Thursday, December 20, 2012

'Safety Not Guaranteed' (2012) directed by Colin Trevorrow, 18th December 2012

'Safety Not Guaranteed' is a mean little tease of a film.  It tempts you with all kinds of time travel based shenanigans, for most of the film you feel pretty sure about where this is all going, but then the film takes repeated turns away from what you expect it to be, but ends up in an equally familiar place.

We live in a time where almost anything can be adapted into a film: theme park rides, board games and seemingly every comic-book property under the sun.  But the genesis of 'Safety Not Guaranteed' is even more unlikely than these, a classified ad placed in 'Backwoods Home Magazine' in 1997.  

This advert eventually took on a life of its own, being the subject of a skit on the Jay Leno Show, and becoming an internet meme in its own right.  The concept here is, what if this advert was serious?  Darius (Audrey Plaza) is the hero of our story, an unpaid intern working for an upmarket Vice-esque magazine.  She, and the geeky Arnau (Karan Soni) are chosen by writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) to come with him on a field trip to investigate the advert and write an article about the guy behind it, who they naturally assume is a crackpot. 

Our would-be time traveller is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and fortunately for Darius, who is told to get to know him, he's not a total psychopath.  He's an intense, depressed man who wants to travel back in time to re-unite with his childhood ex-girlfriend.  He initially comes across as a harmless nut, but as Darius gets closer to him she's drawn into his world and starts to believe that maybe, just maybe there's a slight chance he could actually travel in time.

Darius (Audrey Plaza) - btw those glasses tell you much of what you need to know about this film
Audrey Plaza does a decent job of showing her gradual thawing out.  She begins the film suffering from an undefined and irritatingly vague depressive state, taking a kind of masochistic pleasure in being one of life's punching bags.  Plaza is great at this, just one blank, big-eyed incredulous stare from her is enough to tell you all you need to know about her character.  She spends much of the first half of the film hunched over in a hoodie, self-defensive to a tee and ready with a barbed comment for anyone that crosses her path.  She isn't that likeable, but smartly, the two people she's paired with on this investigation are both annoying in their own ways.  The writer, Jeff is a shallow, sex obsessed jock who is using this assignment as an excuse to track down his high school girlfriend and Arnau is a socially crippled, bordlerline autistic nerd.  Faced with these unappetising social prospects, Darius' smart-ass, cynical demeanour becomes quickly relatable.

But this Darius' iceberg quickly melts when she meets up with fellow social outsider Kenneth.  I've only seen Duplass in one film before this, the so-so 'Your Sister's Sister', and is playing a variation on what seems to be his 'type', namely the slightly rumpled, somewhat slobby but ultimately loveable bachelor.  It's not exactly a stretch for him, although to his credit he believably inserts a certain manic layer underneath much of Kenneth's actions.  He's paranoid, at times worryingly so, most obviously when he suspects he's being followed and begins threatening an innocent couple with a shotgun.  Despite that there are these elements of dangerousness in Duplass' performance, they're quickly glossed over by the film. It is a little odd how quickly Darius falls for a man who lives in a shack in the woods with a large collection of firearms and a predilection for burgling medical facilities.

Kenneth (Mark Duplass)
After these two 'meet cute', they begin to open up to each other and learn that maybe you don't need to go back in time to find happiness, maybe you can find it right here right now.  Bleeurgh, vomit-inducingly sweet stuff.  And here my problems with the film begin. These characters begin their arcs as broken, just barely functioning people:  in other words, they're interesting.  As their relationship develops they start to become slightly better adjusted and open up to each other, and the more they do the less interesting they become.  Sure, it's uplifting to watch these two lift themselves out of their depressive states, but uplifting in an increasingly dull way.

The film settles into following a well-worn indie romantic comedy groove, with our two oddballs getting to know each other through Kenneth's wacky time travel guerilla training.  We see them geekily practicing martial arts on a beach, running through the wood smiling dreamily and (a bit off-puttingly) practising shooting stuff.  In the opening act of the film, it seems like it could head into some untrodden ground, even if it was 'just' a mashup of indie romcom and time travel shenanigans, but quickly it settles into following a well-trodden formula pretty rigidly. 

Darius, Arnau (Karan Sohi) and Jeff (Jake Johnson)
'Safety Not Guaranteed' never quite lost me, but it came pretty damn close during an excruciating scene where, on a camping trip out in the woods, Kenneth plays Darius a heartfelt song he's written for his lost love.  You really want to go here film, fine, I'll tough it out.  I braced myself for the inevitable appearance of the beaten up indie romcom acoustic guitar.  But what was to come was even worse, Kenneth is too kooky to settle for a guitar, no, he pulls out a fucking zither.  As Darius dreamily looks on, her big eyes lit up by the campfire, he proceeds to plink out a horrible, morose, sub-sub-Coldplay zither song.  

My eyes widened in horror during this scene at what I was seeing.  Not only was the song rubbish, not only was it played on a stupidly pretentious dumb-looking instrument, but the film actually expects to nod our heads sagely and come to the conclusion that under all his oddness and paranoia lies the softly beating heart of a sensitive artist (one whose passion can only really be expressed with a fucking zither*).

I've always held that when you're writing about a film, it's important to write about the film you've seen, rather than the film you wanted to see.  But taking that amazing classified advert as a starting point and then making a by-the-numbers quirky indie romcom is a waste of a great concept.  Throughout the film they repeatedly set up plot points to be resolved using time travel that just hang in the air as if left over from a previous (and more entertaining) draft of the script.  Characters will bemoan their actions from 10 years ago and wish they'd done things differently, with the obvious solution being crazy time travel.  It's clumsy exposition, but you can comfort yourself with the idea that the payoff will be worth it.  Ultimately there is no payoff.  The film even wastes Jeff Garlin on a one scene blink and you'll miss it cameo!

Even more annoyingly, the film ends at the point you feel it should have gotten to at least an hour ago.  We watch our characters head off into a far more interesting film leaving us staring at the credits feeling vaguely let down.  Perhaps it's a question of personal taste.  I've seen a hell of a lot of indie romcoms where two eccentric outsiders connect, and I've also seen a lot of films with bonkers time travel paradox conundrums.  I know the general beats of both of these genres, but I'd much rather the film have been more 'Back to the Future' than 'Garden State'.  

I find it difficult to disagree with the overall message of 'Safety Not Guaranteed'; namely that travelling back in time to solve your personal problems isn't a mature way to go about things.  But the execution is something I've seen many times before with very few surprises.  It's nice to finally see Audrey Plaza in a leading role, she's a great actor and makes a difficult character work.  Likewise I've got few complaints about Duplass' performance.  My problem is that the film wants to subvert audience expectations, which is all well and good, but its idea of subversion is to adopt another equally predictable set of conventions that are pretty dull  and played out in 2012.

'Safety Not Guaranteed' is on general release in the UK from 26th December.

*I want to point out here that I have nothing against zithers per se, the soundtrack to 'The Third Man' is awesome, and I'm sure in the right hands zithers are a fine, fine instrument, but still, an acoustic camping zither player is a special kind of tosser.  To make things worse I just read this goofs entry on IMDB: "When Kenneth and Darius are at the camp and Darius asks what kind of musical instrument Kenneth has, he responds that the instrument is a zither. The instrument they are using is a mountain, or Appalachian, dulcimer. Mountain dulcimers do fall into the general zither category, but typically when people refer to zithers they mean instruments that have shorter scale lengths and many more strings, or courses, than mountain dulcimers. Calling a dulcimer a zither is like calling a viola or cello a violin simply because they fall into the general "violin family" category."  IT’S NOT EVEN A PROPER ZITHER!  GAH! 

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