This week, I continue to ignore the multitude of movie theaters near me to review something that’s been out for a while. #YOLO
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012):
The Plot: An intern at a magazine (Aubrey Plaza!) goes on a “work trip” with her boss (Jake Johnson) and another intern (Karan Soni) to investigate a classified ad placed by a purported time traveler looking for a partner (Mark Duplass). As Darius, Jeff, and Arnau investigate this fluff piece, the trio finds themselves falling for the oddball outcast Kenneth and having the weekend of their lives, respectively. Low-key hilarity and forced emotional weight ensue.
Man, who wouldn’t want to go back in time? So many memories, so many mistakes. You could relive your happiest moments or fix your most egregious errors. It sounds great, until you start thinking about it. Because if you go back and change one thing, then you change everything that comes after it. Small decisions pile up until they’ve altered the course of a day, or a week, or, shit, your entire life. Whenever I catch myself wishing I could go back and alter something, I usually just wind up realizing how many good things in my life that would take away. Or I decide that it would be better to go into the future for a bit so I could make a shit ton of money. Either way.
WARNING: THERE WILL BE HELLA SPOILERS AHEAD PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Safety Not Guaranteed is mostly about the reasons why we want to go back in time. It’s a lightweight movie about loss and the ways that grief can trap us in never-ending cycles of denial and failure. Thematically, it’s like the junior novelization of Inside Llewyn Davis.
That sounded mean, so let me clarify: It was mean, but I still enjoyed Safety Not Guaranteed. It’s about as flawed as a fugazi, but it’s also fairly charming, with relatable, almost-human characters. Darius, though her name makes her sound like a gladiator, is probably my favorite character archetype: The downtrodden unpaid intern. Like most of us in our twenties, her life isn’t really going anywhere. She finds solace in Kenneth’s delusional innocence, and the movie kind of seems like it’ll be about two sad oddballs giving each other the emotional support needed to move on with their lives. Then the ending comes along, and pretty much ruins everything.
Before I go into that, some background: Darius answers Kenneth’s ad so she can get the scoop for the magazine. Jeff tries to go “undercover” first, but he’s kind of an asshole, so Kenneth won’t trust him. Darius is an attractive girl with a dark sense of humor, so of course Kenneth trusts her. She’s his Depressive Pixie Dream Girl. As Kenneth adorkably trains her for the “mission,” she begins to fall for him. He takes himself too seriously and is probably insane, but he’s also sweet and naïve. He’s her Manic Nerdy Dream Guy.
As the two learn to trust each other, Darius continues to work on the story with the other intern. They do some digging, and find out that the high school girlfriend Kenneth wants to go back in time to save isn’t actually dead. She’s alive and well in the next town over. Darius interviews her, and finds out that the drunk driver that crashed into her living room was actually a jilted Kenneth, crashing his car into her boyfriend’s house. At this point, Darius kind of believes in the whole time travel thing, so she confronts Kenneth about his lie. Obviously, the guy is delusional. He doesn’t want to go back in time to save this girl, he wants to go back and fix his life. So the movie, which has been heading in this direction for a while now, is about Darius and Kenneth forgiving themselves for the mistakes they made and finding happiness in the present. Right?
It is, until the last five minutes, when some underdeveloped government guys show up at Kenneth’s house, and he runs off to…his…functional time machine. Darius takes his hand, and Kenneth tells her that they’ll go back to save her mom. Oh, good, at least he’s overcome his delusions.
The reason this doesn’t work is that it completely undercuts what little development Safety Not Guaranteed has allowed its characters. Darius doesn’t have to grow, now. Instead, she gets to live out the ultimate fantasy and go back in time to stop herself from asking her mom for chocolate milk. Everything gets fixed in the laziest way possible.
Though the ending screws over both of the main characters, it’s not the film’s greatest flaw. Nobody else gets fully developed either, because Safety Not Guaranteed is at least half an hour too short. This is most evident with Jeff’s arc. Like Darius and Kenneth, he’s stuck in the past. Jeff uses the “work trip” to desperately try to recapture his youth. The film takes time to develop his relationship with an old flame that he’s spent years idolizing. They eventually sleep together, and he asks her to come back with him to Seattle. It’s kind of pathetic, and she of course turns him down. This sends Jeff off the deep end, and he decides that it’s time to get Arnau laid. He picks up three teenage girls outside of a liquor store and gets everybody drunk. There’s a great moment where they’re all Go Kart racing, and there’s a lingering shot of Jeff driving, bottle in hand and on the verge of tears. It speaks volumes about his character.
Unfortunately, everything kind of resets the next morning. Jeff goes back to normal, and Arnau is never given even a moment to reflect on what happened the night before. Instead of using that crazy night as a springboard for more character development, the film has to rush into its irritating finale.
That having been said, I don’t think that rush reflects poorly on director Colin Trevorrow or on Derek Connolly. The filmmakers do a lot with a little. Safety Not Guaranteed is aesthetically competent—now there’s a compliment—and well-paced. The editing is never too slack or too hectic. Connolly’s script is frequently witty and insightful. Given how often it hits the mar, I suspect that the film would have been better served by a bigger budget and a longer running time. As it is, it feels like there are chunks missing from Safety Not Guaranteed. Important chunks, where characters are fleshed out and themes are developed.
Overall, Safety Not Guaranteed is a pleasant enough experience. The characters are just complex enough for it to be frustrating when an arc gets cut short. The performances are all solid, although the short running time means that most of the actors don’t get to stretch all that much. Though I was ultimately disappointed, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching it. I just won’t be in a hurry to see it again.
7 thoughts on “Rooster Illusion: ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’”
Still can’t believe they went with that ending.
Great review and I largely agree. I enjoyed this one but was left feeling a bit underwhelmed when the credits closed. These are interesting characters and the sub plots are pretty interesting too but we just don’t get to see enough. It’s good just not quite great.
Thanks! And yeah, that’s what was so frustrating for me. It was so close to being really good, but ended up falling short.
Great review and I largely agree. I enjoyed this one but felt a little underwhelmed as the credits closed. The characters and sub plots are interesting but, as you say, we never really get enough. It’s good but not quite great.
Great review and I largely agree. I enjoyed this one but felt a lite underwhelmed as the credits closed. The characters and sub plots are interesting but, as you say, we never get enough. It’s good but not quite great.
I really enjoyed this movie when I first saw it (I think it came out around the same time as Moonrise Kingdom? I remember that being a great movie theater double feature) but perhaps I was too forgiving of its flaws. Your review makes me think I should check it out again. Great article, and a delight to read, as always.
That would be an excellent double feature, although I feel like this would work better as an appetizer. And I don’t know if you can be *too* forgiving when it comes to something you liked. It just didn’t work for me. But if you do re-visit it, let me know!
And thank you!