Safety Not Guaranteed

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Let’s talk about dialogue for a minute.  In recent films (not all, but the majority of what’s advertised), the dialogue rides bitch to virtually everything else: plot action, concept, computer graphics, visuals, soundtrack, cinematography.  In action movies (which I’m more inclined to call Explosion Movies or Hunter-Gatherer Movies since they rarely contain much that I’d consider “action” and are always aimed at men who need a replacement activity for their prehistoric forefathers’ jobs), dialogue is reduced to laconic one-liners, all of which you’ve heard before, and which only seem to occur when the battle scenes make room for talking.  The very concept of laconic speech – that is to say, phrases that express ideas in as few words as possible – originated (or is leastways attributed to) the ancient Spartans, who, being a military culture and all-around tough guys, were expected to be men of very few words.  This tradition bled all the way down to modern America, which in its more embarrassing moments idolizes the same sorts of people – Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme (I bet you can name twenty of them) – and is used for a different purpose: not to forgo pompous polemics and long-winded spiels, but to avoid losing the attention of the twenty-first century ADD generation (non-readers, iPhone slaves, Facebook addicts, and tech junkies) that production companies seem to think constitutes 100% of consumers.  In other words, no one can pay attention anymore, and Hollywood is doing nothing to make anyone want to.

Most of the films that make any artistic impression are now independent, and free of the five-seconds-per-shot-and-sentence rule, making use of effective dialogue that moves the story along but also means something, and moreover, sounds as though the screenwriter (which, as a writer of literary prose judging the current state of film dialogue, I’m more tempted to dub a screen-outliner) actually put some time and thought into what the characters say.  Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed is one such film.  Billed as a movie about time travel, the film only skirts the subject, avoiding any real science and focusing chiefly on its characters and how they might actually interact if they were people.

The story follows Darius (Aubrey Plaza of Parks & Rec fame), a recent college graduate slogging through a dead-end internship at a snobby magazine.  When Jeff (Jake Johnson), one of the magazine’s contributors, discovers a classified ad asking for a time-travel partner (the writer of the ad claims that he’s “only done this once before”), Darius volunteers to be Jeff’s sidekick.  Accompanied by Arnau (Karan Soni), who more or less embodies the Indian Friend character archetype, the duo travel to Ocean View, Washington, with the goal of tracking down Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass) and pretending to be interested in time-traveling with him in order to get a good story for the mag.  On top of this deceit, we soon learn that Jeff couldn’t care less about the story, and simply needs an excuse to travel to Ocean View so he can hook up with an old girlfriend, Liz (Jenica Bergere).  Since Arnau is relatively antisocial and only interning for the magazine for the sake of broadening his resume, Darius is left to get the story on Kenneth herself.

What follows is a carefully painted picture of how film characters act when they exhibit actual human behavior, and lo and behold, the filmmakers manage to accomplish this without use of the cheap “found footage” or “documentary style” narrative, which often involves shaky-cam and contrived storytelling meant to mimic “realism.”  Since characters, especially in a film, are still characters and not people, Darius and the others remain bound by the rules of narrative, and thus certain plot points must be unraveled before the end, but Safety Not Guaranteed handles film formula in such an adept way that the events play out naturally.  The ending is too delicious and well-delivered to spoil, but Darius and Kenneth’s motives for time travel evolve with their respective characters, and if (but especially when) time travel has taken place is something to talk about while the credits are rolling.  The film manages to forgo all of the time-travel-tropes – the fish out of water story (a modern character travels to the past and tries to blend in, or vice versa), the epic adventure (characters return to a pivotal time period in order to correct a problem), and even the doom-and-gloom story (a character’s life is saved by time travel, albeit only temporarily), and the film does this without becoming a full-on comedy (Back to the Future; A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), an adventure movie with flat characters (The Time Machine; Timeline), a tragedy (The Time Traveler’s Wife; Donnie Darko), and even without resorting to convoluted time-travel science (Primer).  The wonderfully human performances by Plaza, Duplass, and Johnson reinforce the humanity of the characters, who remain passionate about things real people are passionate about, even in the face of the fantastical: love, money, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the approval of a supervisor.  Even Jeff’s story, which involves his misguided attempt to reunite with Liz, armed only with his rusty wit and unbridled misogyny, ends the way it’s supposed to.

Aubrey Plaza is excellent in her first major leading role, and I would love to see her break further away from her April Ludgate deadpan style (although she’s very good at it) in future roles; with this film, it’s plain to see she’s got plenty of diversity in her.

It’s also interesting to note that Darius is not only a male name, but it was the name of three different Persian kings.  As the Persians and Spartans didn’t much care for one another, consider, then, a character like Darius (and a film like Safety Not Guaranteed) the antithesis to the Explosion/Hunter-Gatherer films that we (the writers, thinkers, and attention-payers) no longer want to be dragged to and deafened by.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012); written by Derek Connolly; directed by Colin Trevorrow; starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and Jake Johnson.

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