Take Me Away (I Don’t Mind), by Aaron Pinkston
“WANTED: Someone 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.“ With these words from a small-town newspaper classified ad Safety Not Guaranteed springs into action. Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to go back in time. Some may want to fix a mistake, others may want to see a loved one at least one more time. Then there are those who just want to experience the thrill of something that may be impossible. Safety Not Guaranteed wonderfully plays on this idea with its three main characters and explores how this possibility may not always be so wonderful. The film may have the allure of sci-fi, but it’s really about feelings and stuff.
Aubrey Plaza takes her first starring role as Darius (some sort of liberal northwestern name, I guess), a hapless girl struggling with post-college life and the loss of her mother. While interning at a small magazine, she is recruited by journalist Jeff (Jake Johnson) to explore the mystery of the classified ad. They come across Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a cynical, suspicious loner who becomes a much more interesting and difficult subject than the magazine trio expect.
As I mentioned, the science around time travel serves as a classic macguffin — a plot device used as a motivator for the protagonists and drives the narrative forward, without being totally integral in what the film is really trying to say. The film’s real concern is a character study, mostly of the mysterious Kenneth, and the small but poignant relationships coming from this strange encounter. Still, it doesn’t play off its sci-fi elements cheaply, and there should be some appeal to the nerd culture with such interests. The quirky nature of the film and the nerd-friendly cast will help this cross-over from film nerds to science nerds, but I wonder do wonder if some may feel a bit jaded by the time travel elements, especially the ending, which I won’t spoil.
What appeals more to me, however, are the parallel stories of the three main characters, all who have different reasons for going back in time, both literal and figurative. Darius and Kenneth are working to go back to happier moments in their lives, in hopes of salvaging those times. Jeff, on the other hand, uses the opportunity of this job assignment to return to his home town and a former fling, returning to a time where he wasn’t so jaded or self-obsessed, and reunite with possibly the only person he has had a positive relationship with.
Kenneth is a brilliant turn for veteran ultra-low-budget actor Mark Duplass. On paper, the role seems like something written for Rainn Wilson — Kenneth is a weird, super nerd loner not much different from Wilson’s most known role, Dwight Schrute. But that character would have totally sunk Safety Not Guaranteed, so while Duplass feels a little broad when we first meet Kenneth, his experience in subtlety adds a lot of depth and pain to the character. I’m used to seeing Duplass as a slightly cooler version of the everyman, accessible but smarter and wittier than average. Kenneth provides a much more interesting character on both sides of the spectrum: he’s allowed to a little more over-the-top, but also with an emotional underbelly of sweet sadness. Duplass is undoubtedly the star of this film.
In contrast, Jake Johnson’s Jeff is a boorish, self-obsessed man-child who I had a lot more trouble grasping. While his character arc is necessary as a counter-balance for the more esoteric time travel plot line, I could have done without his character altogether. The major problem with the role is I get the feeling that the film wants you to like him, at least feel he has been redeemed in some way, but the film’s conclusion. While it’s fine to have a character who appears to be super-cool and unlikeable be a major focus of your film, I seriously disagree that he deserves any bit of redemption. Without getting into particulars, Jeff’s story wraps up with something he perceives as a betrayal — because the film shifts its focus away from Jeff in most of the third act, it’s difficult to know what he’s really learned. He may be more genuine by the end, but he hasn’t warranted my full trust.
Finally, fans of Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation will like Aubrey Plaza from Safety Not Guaranteed. Both of these characters are angst personified. Unlike her two male co-stars, though, Darius is much more a blank slate — an audience surrogate used mostly to react to the crazy situation she is getting into with Kenneth. It’s not a bad role for Plaza, but it’s not particularly a strong female role.
When Safety Not Guaranteed works, it is one of the most interesting small-budget rom-coms of recent memory. It’s rare for such a modest film to enwrap you in genuine suspense and surprise, but as the film reaches its conclusion it remains a mystery as to where it is really going. They say the ending is the hardest part of a script to write, and we’ve seen a lot of low-budget films with shocking or non-existent endings over the past few years. The finale of Safety Not Guaranteed completely worked for me — staying true to its narrative and the characters that matter, while emphasizing the main themes brought on by the idea of going back in time. There is certainly a built-in audience for this film, and those in its target will undoubtedly enjoy themselves.