When not surveying the slowly collapsing political and cultural outlook for my country, or indeed contemplating the great empty spaces of my own soul, one of the ways I like to spend my time is to ponder who the funniest one on Parks and Recreation is. Sometimes I think it’s Chris Pratt. Sometimes I think it’s Adam Scott. Most of the time, I have to say, I’m convinced it’s Nick Offerman. But occasionally I think it’s Aubrey Plaza.
Was this the reason I ended up putting Safety Not Guaranteed on my DVD rental list? I’m not really sure, for I have no memory of actually doing so. I suspect the words ‘time travel’ in the description of the film may have had something to do with it.
This movie came out in 2011 and was directed by Colin Trevorrow. Plaza largely recycles her Parks and Recreation persona as Darius, a disaffected intern working for a magazine based in Seattle. The position is hardly fulfilling, but a bizarre advert in a newspaper’s classified ads section offers a brief diversion, if nothing else: someone is advertising for a companion to accompany them on a trip back in time.
At an editorial meeting Darius’ co-worker Jeff (Jake Johnson) proposes they go and investigate the ad as the basis of a tongue-in-cheek piece for the magazine. It’s only when they arrive in small town where the poster of the advert lives that Jeff reveals this is just an excuse for them to have a bit of an out-of-town break. An old girlfriend of his lives in the same town and he’s intent on hooking up with her again, so he leaves Darius to handle the actual investigating.
Darius soon makes contact with the would-be time traveller. His name is Kenneth (played by Mark Duplass) and he is just a bit paranoid – but given that there seem to be government agents taking an interest in his activities, perhaps he has a right to be. Darius soon finds herself growing fascinated by this strange dreamer, and perhaps even wanting to believe he really does have a time machine…
It’s always a bit rattling to find yourself completely out of step with the majority of the world, but I find myself in just this position when it comes to Safety Not Guaranteed. This is a movie with a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the recipient of a large number of awards from esteemed sources like Sundance, Independent Spirit, and the Tel Aviv International Fantastic Festival. And yet I found it borderline annoying, occasionally dull, largely unconvincing, and generally underwhelming.
This is obviously a modest, low-budget film, and given those constraints it looks impressive. It reminded me in some ways of the same year’s Another Earth, in that it uses a generic plot device to explore introspective and personal themes of regret and isolation. In both cases the actual plot device is a Maguffin – in the case of Safety Not Included the question of whether or not Kenneth’s time machine works or not is irrelevant to the plot for virtually the entire duration of the film. To put it another way: Primer this ain’t.
Then again, I have to note that this movie is described as a comedy, not an SF film, and I probably shouldn’t get too incensed about the fact that it’s a time travel film that doesn’t actually have any time travel in it. On the other hand, I think the fact that it’s a comedy which didn’t make me laugh once throughout its length is reasonable grounds for criticism. I wasn’t even sure which bits are actually supposed to be funny – are we supposed to be laughing at Kenneth for being such a geeky weirdo? Perhaps I am just too kindly-disposed towards geeky weirdos, being one myself, but there’s also the fact that he’s the romantic interest of the movie and thus surely not an obvious figure of fun.
I suppose I should mention that the central relationship between Plaza and Duplass did not convince me in the slightest. I suspect the intended arc here is for Plaza to go from jaded cynicism to a new-found hopefulness as a result of her interaction with Duplass’ character, but either the script isn’t careful enough in spelling this out or Plaza simply doesn’t yet have the skill as an actress to make it work. As it is, the main character in this film simply comes across as a slightly less malevolent version of Ron Swanson’s PA.
Completely non-genre related, by the way, is the second story strand about Jeff’s attempt to recapture his youthful experiences with old girlfriend Liz (Jenica Bergere). For some reason this relationship did ring true for me, and there’s almost a genuine sense of pathos as it doesn’t work out for them – but the Jeff character is too broadly crass the rest of the time for it to be really affecting.
Still, given the theme of the film as a whole is a desire to revisit the past, at least it has a sort of thematic unity, and a definite technical competence. It just doesn’t have any laughs, new ideas, genuine surprises, or a central relationship that really convinces. But, as I say, everyone else seems to disagree with me, and your mileage may differ.