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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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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
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Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
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“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
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