dir: Colin Trevorrow
Sometimes I can’t see the plain things in front of me that other people can see. I don’t know whether it’s an eye problem, or some kind of neurological disorder, but, whatever it is, it means the virtues of this particular flick have completely eluded me.
The premise is that this vaguely has something to do with a classified ad that was put in a Seattle newspaper once upon a time, whereby someone pretended to be asking for someone in order to go time travelling together. Hence the Safety Not Guaranteed appellation, as in you couldn’t Guarantee someone’s Safety if they come with you into the Mesozoic era, but you still want someone to come with you, bringing their own weapons and expertise, and maybe a cut lunch. Sunscreen would be nice, and maybe a change of underwear.
That vaguest of premises has a basis in fact by only the loosest of definitions, in that someone once posted an ad like that. It was, however, a joke, as in a fake ad.
From this somehow they’ve spun a confection whose purpose, I guess, is to illuminate the gutting feeling many of us possess whereby we wish we could go back in time to correct something that happened or something horrible that we did. Yes, yes, we all have regrets. But this flick, not unusual in the cinematic landscape, makes literal this wish, in that we’re gradually meant to believe that the nutjob at the centre of the flick could actually do it.
To say that I was not on board with this premise from the start would be accurate. To say that I became less convinced of what the story was saying as it went on would be accurate as well. To say that I thought none of it worked, and that it built to an ending that was wholly unearned would be an understatement.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an unpaid intern at a shitty Seattle magazine. Why a woman has a man’s name is never explained. Why this woman is an unpaid intern is easy to parse: she’s trying to enter journalism in this day and age. I mean, that’s the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard, someone trying to break into the dying medium of the media. I mean, everyone knows only the absolute best of the best, the brightest and the most dedicated need apply. Everyone else, like Darius, is just going to be there to get the coffees and the lunches.
A different journalist entirely, being an absolute shitbird called Jeff (Jake Johnson), is the one who sees the classified ad, and who pitches the story idea during an editorial meeting. The editor thinks the idea is brilliant (which is the least believable aspect of the whole film), and tells Jeff to take two slaves along with him to track the lunatic down who posted it.
They find him by using basic investigative techniques, which warms the hearts of amateur sleuths the world over, and he turns out to look like the kind of deranged lunatic you’d imagine would post such an ad. The guy, called Kenneth (Mark Duplass), has a mullet and wears a lot of what I think used to be called ‘acid wash denim’, but probably has a more hipster title these days which simultaneously mocks and elevates the wearer at the same time. He doesn’t wear any of it ironically, though. Kenneth is the kind of conspiracy minded nutjob who you get trapped next to on a flight or on public transport who’s hygiene tends to be suspect and who, with much repetition, tells you about how the lizard aliens crashed the planes into the Twin Towers or how a secret cabal of Jews, Mormons and members of Honey Boo Boo’s family rule the world and put helium in the drinking water.
He thinks he’s being followed, and he seems fully committed to his project, of going back in time to stop the death of the woman he loved. After an initial fail by the head journo on the story to convince Kenneth that he’s legit, Darius steps up, and Kenneth naturally forgets all his paranoid training and lets her in on the ultra-top-secret project.
We’re meant to think Darius is better at the stealthing sleuthing alleged journalism stuff, but, really, it’s because she’s an attractive girl. She’s way too attractive for Kenneth, and yet, like with most men, even the ones who aren’t paranoid schizophrenics, we always abandon our valid paranoid when the prospect of spending some quality time with or inside a woman way too attractive for us doesn’t trigger the right kind of alarm bells. It’s why we’re easy prey for scammers, charity workers and women trying to murder us in our sleep to steal our kidneys (it happens, doesn’t it?)
She doesn’t have to do anything further to convince Kenneth any further. They training montage together, which was a bit embarrassing, but then I couldn’t tell if they were including a montage because they were lazy, or if they were doing it as a joke. Either way, it’s a pretty lazy and nonsensical joke.
From there, basically, we’re meant to be watching Darius going from sceptical to tentative to adoring, but basically it requires us to believe that she’s getting dumber, and Kenneth, who seems delusional and not that bright, actually might be a supergenius in acid wash disguise. The process for Darius, if she’s a stand-in for us, is that she comes to see the true heart of the man that beats under the homeless-stalker-Tea Party member exterior, that beyond what may be a dangerous conglomeration of delusions and outright hallucinations, he may be someone who’s just looking for love in all sorts of wrong places.
None of this washes with me. I’m a romantic. I’m a romantic’s romantic, but I didn’t buy any of it here for a second. The guy, despite whatever it is that happens at the end, is not only a lunatic, but a dangerous lunatic who commits serious crimes in his pursuit of the goal of time travel. He commits burglaries and armed robberies, and, we are told anecdotally, tried to kill someone with his car.
I don’t recall any reason in the flick which gave me any reason to want the guy to succeed. If I don’t want him to succeed, and think his mission and his life is just horrible, then I can’t relate to Darius slowly falling in love with this guy who probably stinks of cheesy snacks and manky unwashed jeans. And if that’s the case, and I think that these two idiots possibly going back through time would be worse than fifty Hitlers, then the movie doesn’t work for me.
If that’s the case, what I’m left with is other elements, like acting, cinematography, or maybe some pretty costumes as possible things to enjoy in a film I’m not enjoying. Aubrey Plaza’s trying to branch out and play gentler characters from the abusive, monotone, caustic ones she’s played on telly or the big screen. She’s trying to be convincing as a romantic lead, which would plausibly expand the kinds of roles she’s being offered. Good luck to her on that, because despite the fact that I didn’t like anything her character did or didn’t do in this film, I thought her performance was better than okay.
As for the guy playing Kenneth, despite the bewildering array of people praising his performance, I think Mark Duplass should stick to directing. I didn’t find a single second of his performance believable in the slightest. Couldn’t get into it, couldn’t buy it, not even for a dollar. Gods forgive me for saying this, but he just seemed amateurish, regardless of what his character was doing.
Also, let me just point out with my meagre amount of experience in the journalistic field: These are the least competent journos I’ve ever seen in any movie ever. Set aside the completely unethical thing they’re doing to Kenneth; they’re just terrible. And what “journalism” do they actually do? Who writes a word?
So, what else is left? There’s the bizarre subplot of the lead journo whose secret motivation for doing this story was the opportunity to hook up with a woman he slept with twenty years ago. He acts like a total pig most of the time, and even more piggish as he pursues this woman. He’s a reprehensible character who’s designed to make Kenneth look sweeter by comparison, and everything he does is so calculated to make us dislike him that I couldn’t figure out why the filmmakers wanted me to hate the flick even more than I already did.
But then? But then, he has four minutes of the best acting in the whole film, when he speaks gently and honestly about himself and about his feelings towards this old flame, four minutes that were so good I was left with my mouth open. Then the window closes, he becomes awful again, making me feel even worse when there was no decent follow up or repercussions from those moments of decent acting. Look, that’s just cruel, okay? Why show me some daylight when you’re just going to slam the shutters down again, making me doubt I ever saw a fleeting glimpse of sunshine at all? You took me out of solitary for a breathe of fresh air, and then threw me back in the hole.
And that, I do not forgive. This film obviously didn’t appeal to me, but it might appeal to other people. My fellow audience member, the person I watch most flicks with, and also view most of life’s rich pageantry with, well, she thought it was just lovely, so what the hell do I know? I doubt it’s a gender thing, maybe I just wasn’t in the right headspace for it. All I can say is that I didn’t like it, and I wish I could unwatch it, if such a thing could be possible. And now I’ve come from the future to warn you, citizens of Earth, not to watch it either.
4 wishes I have that I could go back through time and warn myself not to watch this flick out of 10
“To go it alone or to go with a partner. When you choose a partner you have to have compromises and sacrifices, but it's a price you pay. Do i want to follow my every whim and desire as I make my way through time and space, absolutely. But at the end of the day do I need someone when I'm doubting myself and I'm insecure and my heart's failing me? Do I need someone who, when the heat gets hot, has my back?” – no, you do not, because you can just let your insanity keep you warm on those cold, lonely nights – Safety Not Guaranteed