Safety Not Guaranteed

by Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider

EXPECTATIONS: So we're doing this now? Making movies out of internet memes has become a thing? This isn't even the first movie to do this, it's just the only one with the potential to be good. This year, we've had Danny Trejo playing Epic Beard Man, and we'll hopefully never see whatever the hell this thing is. (Wait, hold up. Was the tagline for that last movie "All Your Memes Are Belong To Us?" Seriously? I think I speak for all of Something Awful when I say, "Stop saying that. I know we started it, but just stop.") Anyway, if you're not familiar with the story behind this film, it's adapted from a real (joke) classified ad asking for a time travel partner that's made its way around the internet for years. Sure. Why not? We live in a world where you can say any three words, usually "*blank* versus *blank*," and have them be greenlit. At least Safety Not Guaranteed offers some kind of story to be told.

REALITY: Throughout my high-school education, I was told repeatedly that if you don't understand something, the best course of action is to write about it. This is information I always took with a grain of "Pffffft, whatever," which I now realize is a dangerous attitude for someone who puts words on a computer screen for a living to have. Well, Ms. Vandiver, I hope you weren't just trying desperately to inspire a room full of bored 11th-graders to care about The Scarlet Letter, because I saw Safety Not Guaranteed three days ago, and I still don't know what I think.

Why are you looking at me like that?Safety Not Guaranteed follows confused mopey 20-something Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza), who interns at Seattle Magazine. When douchebag reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson, who had one of my favorite lines in 21 Jump Street) hears of the now-Internet-famous classified ad reading "Wanted: Somebody 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," he sees an opportunity for a story and drags Darius and nerdy intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to the village of Ocean View, Washington. The trio investigates the poster of the ad, a grocery-store clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who lives alone and is truly convinced that he can travel back in time once he obtains the parts he needs for his machine. Darius forms a close relationship with Kenneth during the investigation, Jeff attempts to rekindle an old relationship, and Arnau is apparently the Abed from a Bizarro universe where Community was created by the same people who made Big Bang Theory.

I find it interesting that this film basically takes the same plot we've seen in countless Matthew McConaughey films, where one party is lying and taking advantage of a person for personal gain, then starts to develop feelings for them. This one just happens to do a gender swap and actually kinda makes it more despicable because the person being taken advantage of is clearly mentally ill. Maybe. Probably. We think the film is asking, "Is Kenneth crazy, or can he really time travel?" only to realize by the end that these two concepts do not necessarily negate each other. Duplass, who is one of the few director/actors I like in front of the camera more than behind, puts in such a convincing performance that it's almost irrelevant whether Kenneth can time travel, it still doesn't quite feel like Darius is safe around him. Which is fine, because the movie tells us that in the title.

The film revolves around this central theme of stepping outside of one's comfort zone, and as a result, it plays with the expectations of what a "safe" film should be. I already compared this film to something like, say, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, but it's interesting that our main protagonists are Darius and Jeff, not Darius and Kenneth. Kenneth may be the main love interest, but he's just there as an extension of Darius' story. The film also refuses to give a sense of closure at the end, which is thematically important but frustrating if you care about the characters. Jeff steps outside of his comfort zone and is vulnerable in front of a woman, and he winds up getting hurt. Darius is outside of her comfort zone simply by being around people and doing things, and we're never actually told what happens to her. The only person who has a completely positive experience is Arnau, and even then, his development takes place off-camera, so any results of it are strictly in our imaginations.

No seatbelts? You just lost your PG-13!

The issue I take with this is that we've made a movie about taking risks without ever showing any of the risks pay off, and that seems counterproductive to me. Without any clearly positive or negative results, you're basically making a movie that says "Hey, young lady! Why not do something different? Go into the woods alone with a possibly schizophrenic person! YOLO!" and says "Or don't do that! Whatever!" all at the same time. The movie itself is indie because it basically has to be, it's a challenge to a lot of what audiences are comfortable with from a light comedy.

This isn't to say the film isn't funny. It's damn funny. For some reason, it's hilarious to see someone like Arnau respond to Aubrey Plaza's signature deadpan faux-disinterest with actual, genuine disinterest. Many people will call this a Hipster Film, partly because it takes place in Seattle and mostly because no one actually has any idea what the word "hipster" means. (Looking at you, the entire city of Portland, Oregon.) However, it's almost exactly the opposite. There's a turning point when the film tells its disaffected youth characters that "Irony, sarcasm, and emotional shields are nice and all, but you know what's really cool? Genuine, actual emotions." It's a theme which has been explored in cinema over the past decade or so (Young Adult and Garden State are the first two examples that come to mind) and I find it interesting that we've reached a point in our society where we need to be told that having feelings is a good thing. 2012 is the year we all became autistic children.

So, despite all the negative things I've said, three days and a thousand words later I'm still not sure what I think. (Take THAT, Ms. Vandiver!) However, it's that uncertainty which the film was clearly trying to achieve, and so it deserves a high score. My opinion on the film flip-flops the more I think about it and discuss it with other people, but what's remarkable is the fact that the film essentially forces me to think and have discussions with people. Now, this may be unfair, because thinking-too-much-about-movies is literally my job, but I don't think I'll be alone in this. The fact that this is a deliberately open-ended film will cause people to talk to each other and share thoughts and opinions. A piece of art will make us think and feel things. That's not supposed to happen, is it?

Ambiguity10/10
Emotionality10/10
Sympathy10/10
Discussion Fodder10/10
StormtroopersDon't Know Anything About Time Travel!
Overall40/50

MINORITY REPORT: In order for a film to spark mass discussion, a lot of people need to see it. Unfortunately, there's a Batman film out and that is sparking a lot of discussion about how Bruce Wayne managed to get from one location to another in time for the third act. So good luck with the whole talking about Safety Not Guaranteed thing. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison

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