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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: Safety Not Guaranteed

One of the biggest surprises of this year’s Sundance is just how terrific Safety Not Guaranteed, Colin Trevorrow’s film based on a real Craigslist ad seeking a companion for time travel, turned out to be. The film’s quirky premise, which sends three magazine employees to investigate whether the man who placed the ad really thinks he can travel through time, seems funny enough just based on the premise (and it is), but like the writers who go off in search of what they think will be a wacky story to poke fun at, we find instead a very human film that’s complicated and genuine and never cruel in its use of humor. I thought this was by far the strongest script at this year’s Sundance in terms of sheer quality of writing and execution of idea, and apparently I wasn’t the only one; screenwriter Derek Connolly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Safety Not Guaranteed at last night’s awards ceremony.

Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza carries much of the film as Darius, a cynical intern roped into traveling to the shore town of Ocean View, Washington with fellow sad sack intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and their annoyingly smug and smarmy boss Jeff (Jake Johnson), who really pitched the story so he’d have a paid trip to Ocean View to hunt down ex-girlfriend Liz (Jeneca Bergere), the first teenage romance that he’s never quite gotten over.

The three writers stalk and hunt down their target, Kenneth (Mark Duplass) and Darius is pegged to make contact with him. And she does, in a hilarious, brilliantly written comedic scene in which she approaches Kenneth as he’s stocking soup at his day job at Grocery Outlet, and convinces him that she is the one to go on his time travel mission with him. But the more she gets to know Kenneth, the more she likes him. She’s no longer so cynically certain Kenneth’s a nut case, and what’s more, his paranoid delusions about government agents following him might not be so paranoid after all. As Darius’s feelings about Kenneth and the story she’s investigating grow more complicated, so too do Jeff’s for Liz. At first Jeff is disappointed to see that Liz – like him – has actually changed and aged a little over the past twenty years, but as he gets to know the woman who’s grown from the girl in his memory, shallow Jeff starts to see Liz in another way.

Side stories like this can detract from the storyline of the protagonist, but here Jeff’s budding new relationship with his old love is used to enhance the underlying theme of not judging others by first appearances, and learning that even someone who might seem to be flawed in some way might still have something special to offer. The Jeff sideline is a smart choice from a writing standpoint also, in that it allows this character who would otherwise be merely an annoying one-dimensional prop to have a richness and complexity that’s often neglected in secondary characters.

What I most enjoyed about Safety Not Guaranteed, though, is a performance by Mark Duplass that made me see him as an actor in a completely different way. He’s always likable, generally funny, and undeniably talented, and yet in most of his roles there’s still that little bit of “Mark Duplass” under the surface peeking out. His turn in Safety Not Guaranteed, though, is a bit of a revelation, much more complex and layered than we’ve seen from him before. In his hands, Kenneth is quirky and funny, which you’d expect from Duplass, but he’s also deeply flawed, sad, and utterly sincere. Between this role and his role as a guy mourning his dead brother in Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, this is the year for me that Mark Duplass has become more than just another indie hyphenate; he’s stepping up into “seriously good actor” territory.

This is just a solid film all the way around: the strong confident direction by Trevorrow, the terrific script by Connolly, gorgeous cinematography by Ben Kasulke and some really excellent production design by Ben Blankenship and art direction by Lisa Hammond (the design work on Kenneth’s house is particularly noteworthy). Safety Not Guaranteed is a cut way, way above the average Sundance film. When it makes its way to your neck of the woods, I’m betting you’ll enjoy it a lot. Pretty much guaranteed.

2 Responses to “Sundance Review: Safety Not Guaranteed”

  1. Ken Wilson says:

    I think your assessment was right on. We saw the movie in the 1200 seat Eccles Theater in Park City, and it received a standing ovation. I look forward to seeing it again this summer when it is released.

  2. Tom Carr says:

    Truth in advertising: the director is my nephew-in-law. So I can’t truly separate “This is a really, really good movie” from “Wow — this is Colin’s movie and it’s really, really good”. But trying to focus on the objective, this is a really, really good movie.

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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