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Safety Not Guaranteed

June 16, 2012
Safety Not Guaranteed

This summer we’ve had two indie time travel movies that have both wisely skirted the issue of actually traveling through time. In fact, neither one directly answers the question of whether it’s possible at all. But while Sound of My Voice gave us a tense meditation on the received narratives and belief, Safety Not Guaranteed mines the same ground to come up with a touching comedy about pain, loss, and regret.

In the days before lolcats and rage comics ruled the internet’s “meme” community, there were other famous running gags. In 2005 there was one based on a 1997 classified ad which ran, in its entirety:

WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322, Oakview, CA 93022. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

It’s wonderfully evocative, thinking of this ad squirreled away in the back of some magazine, hinting at mysterious goings-on just underneath the surface of our everyday lives. Was it, in fact, a joke? Was the writer mentally ill and playing out one of his fantasies? Or could it be that someone actually could travel back in time.

In the film, the address has been transplanted to Ocean View, Washington, and the ad has come to the attention of Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), a writer at Seattle magazine. He enlists two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), to go ask exactly these questions, and to look up a woman he once had a summer fling with (Jenica Bergere).

In Ocean View, they find Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and it’s immediately apparent that the ad isn’t a joke, at least to him. Guarded and mildly paranoid, even claiming that he’s being followed by government agents, he drives Jeff away immediately. But Darius manages to earn his trust, digging deeper into what exactly is going on.

But the more important question is why Kenneth wants to go back in time in the first place. He puts the same question to Darius in turn: why is she answering his ad, seeking to turn back her own clock? Derek Connolly’s smart, debut screenplay turns the question on Jeff and Arnau and, in its way, on us. What would you change if you had the chance?

To answer the question requires a certain degree of unvarnished honesty that modern culture finds déclassé. “Be smart”, we’re told. “Be hip and cynical and for God’s sake don’t do something as goofy as actually believing in something.” Napoleon Dynamite, for all its affection, still treated its lead as an object of benign pity. Kenneth echoes Napoleon’s “sweet moves” with his earnest training and preparations for “when the heat gets hot”, and it’s hard not to laugh a little at his awkward unhipness.

But Kenneth isn’t laughing; away from Seattle’s urban center his sort of uncynical belief is more tenable, though he’s still sort of a weird one. It’s Duplass’ achievement to play the part with a real tenderness and respect. Plaza touches something of the same vein in Darius, lowering her defenses in a way that she never would on Parks and Recreation. And Johnson nails Jeff’s feint in the same direction, followed by his rush back to the safety of his emotional fortress.

Though we may not all be able to follow Kenneth’s example, there is one place that real, uncynical honesty must — or at least should — abide: in the intimate spaces between close friends and lovers. At its core, this is a love story about finding a place and time where, despite all of our misgivings, we feel safe.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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