Safety Not Guaranteed Brilliantly Takes a Wild Pitch Beyond the Creative Limit

I don’t know how the good screenwriters do it. They make magic from bullshit. Every casual moviegoer, at one time, has played the role of  “armchair” screenwriter or tough-talking “living room” film director (myself included). They commonly start by saying, “Dude, I have this great idea for a movie.” Everyone’s got an idea or a “pitch,” but how many of those are really plausible and workable as full movies. Sure, it might be a nice idea in theory, but it struggles to have depth for more than a five-minute Saturday Night Live skit or a Ted movie from Seth MacFarlane. You ask yourself if you could make a complete fleshed-out movie out of that? Probably not, which is why screenwriters get paid the big bucks and the rest of us write blogs or do less than that.

On the surface, that’s the likely first impression one would get with Safety Not Guaranteed, the independent mumblecore film that won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The proverbial pitch that we would laugh off becomes the jumping-off point for a unique and original comedy.

On the actual poster and in the film, an ominous Seattle-area classified ad sets the stage:

The classified ad at the crux of Safety Not Guaranteed

Read that and tell me what you think. Yeah, you’re right; that sounds like a preposterous movie plot that either a drunk guy would make up at the bar or those “armchair” screenwriters dialed up. The set-up is for real and the movie is for real. Future Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow took this idea and ran with it to unexpected heights. Safety Not Guaranteed is one of the most clever, sharp, and well-written movies you will see in the mumblecore genre.

A bevy of TV scene-stealers make up the cast. Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a wayward and uninspired low-level intern with a Seattle magazine that still lives at home with her widower father (Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s, Jeff Garlin). Doing crap work for her boss Bridget (24‘s Mary Lynn Rajskub), she gets picked up to participate on an investigative story looking into the aforementioned classified ad. The lead writer on the job is the cocky and conceited Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson), who would rather chase local tail on assignment than really do the work. Jeff and Darius are joined by the introverted foreign nerd intern Arnau (then-newcomer Karan Soni of the Deadpool series).

Darius, Arnau, and Jeff spy on someone from their car.

Together they make the trip out of town to coastal Washington where the track down the writer of the ad, the reclusive Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass, also a producer of the movie through Duplass Brothers Productions). Kenneth is a socially-awkward and obsessive nerd of a man who’s definitely a recovering loner, driving around in his beater car. He endlessly “trains” for his “trip” by day and stocks supermarket shelves by night. Darius, with a combination of charm, intrigue, and perceived focus, befriends and infiltrates Kenneth’s operation. With a career break in mind, she makes up a story and earns his trust to join him on his journey. Of course, as their time together grows, it becomes more than a job for her. Jeff and Arnau follow Darius’s work, but soon realize that they’re not the only ones watching Kenneth Calloway.

Before Safety Not Guaranteed, all three leads made a nice little niche out of playing supporting characters in their previous work, but they really get to stretch their legs and talent here and have become bigger deals since as leads. Jake Johnson’s charisma is well-tuned to play this vulnerable asshole role in Safety Not Guaranteed. Aubrey Plaza really stepped up here from her side-character work on TV. Her deadpan style is still her disarming way in, but she shows that she has more than that to offer. She’s a more than plausible romantic lead and finally got a few more welcome opportunities to smile that deadpan away.

The real revelation at the time was Mark Duplass. With this film seven years ago, his diverse resume continued to grow. He had the hardest role to sell with Kenneth. He had to be believable as not just being crazy, but with good cause. If you cannot get the earnestness and remorse his character’s craziness is rooted in, the whole movie falls apart.

For as much as Kenneth’s character has sweetness, he is still a little crazy.  He’s spent the better part of a decade stealing, scrounging, and plotting to build a time machine and change his past. That’s a hell of a deep obsession and a few notches above most of your everyday hobbies.  You know what, though, it drives him, motivates him, and keeps him going.  For that, it’s not a bad thing.

The question you wonder all movie until the tipping point of Safety Not Guaranteed is the big one: Why are you going back in time?  The answer to that light level of science fiction for both Kenneth and Darius is marinated in regret, hopeful in love, cognizant of loss, and stemming from perceived mistakes. In both characters, we see what those feelings have done to them over time. One can easily connect that “how far would you go” measurement to this scenario.

It can be argued that we are always in control of our actions and that all of our choices are our decisions. You could play the “no one’s forcing you to jump off the bridge” analogy.  However, our characters in Safety Not Guaranteed have experienced a few times where their actions felt forced, driven by a need, or as a reaction to something not in their control. With this possible step into time travel and changing their fate and past, the importance of doing something or going into something by independent choice becomes all the more important.

Safety Not Guaranteed dares to keep your attention at every turn and really succeeds. The script is brilliant and deserves the praise it has already gotten. From diving deeper into Kenneth’s world to seeing the different motivations that come to light, for both our time travelers and our magazine team tailing him, more and more layers of interest keep coming into play. All the while, you feel the countdown and are driven to wonder if Kenneth and his time machine are the real deal when the time comes to leave.  This pace makes the movie breeze by and, unlike some other edgy indie movies that sell you with teases, the payoff is really rich and deserved.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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