Safety Not Guaranteed is a pleasant, low-key independent film, half screwball farce, half lightweight romantic comedy, that in spite of its nearly elephant-sized plot holes and occasional confusing editing missteps will certainly entertain, not least with images of coastal Washington state. The movie garnered an astonishing range of positive reviews. It stars Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreation, and Mark Duplass, who co-produced it with his brother.
Plaza plays Darius, a morose twenty-something intern at a Seattle magazine who doesn’t have the personality to land a paying job doing something normal, like waiting tables. She’s sad because her mother died when she was a teenager. She volunteers to work on a story about someone who’s placed a classified ad asking for someone to time-travel with him, joining two men, a fulltime reporter, and another intern, a nerdy undergraduate science major who joined the magazine to add diversity to his CV. When they travel to the seaside resort where the mystery person lives, it turns out that the reporter really only wants to hook up with an old high school fling who used to live in the area, so after his initial attempt to approach the subject fails, it becomes Darius’s job to learn about the guy all on her own.
It’s all very zany and intriguing, and not especially serious. If you’re going to object to the idea that these people truly are investigating whether the guy really does have a working time machine hidden in that ramshackle house in the woods, you’re watching the wrong movie. On the other hand, it does arguably go a bit too far, beginning when Darius is led into the woods to (it turns out) participate in a felony, and neither the professional reporter nor her editor (who we later learn has been receiving blow-by-blows via e-mail) objects to this fact or calls the story off. On reflection, there is a point where it simply isn’t any longer plausible that magazine reporters would operate in this way, inserting themselves into the story under false pretenses and (one assumes) not even revealing that they’re reporters except after the story’s seen in print.
The plot is more short story than novel, which is fine, and usual for an indie film. The subplots more echo the main storyline than deepen it. There’s little effort to gain the viewer’s empathy for the characters, and in fact, several of them have basically no positive traits at all. This, again, is more or less par for the course in an independent film, as these tend to avoid the strenuously mechanical screenplay building more usual in Hollywood. Also par for the course is the quirkiness. This, though, is possibly a little too extreme. Kenneth is obviously, by the end of the movie, and arguably, from the first moment we see him, seriously mentally ill. There are vague gestures in the direction of explaining why he’s angry, in the form of explanations of the way peers have treated him in the past, and of painting him as simply a nerd, ambiguous between explaining why he’s mentally ill and demonstrating how difficult life can be for an ill person. And there’s nothing wrong with this kind of ambiguity, as an element of a film. All this film’s ambiguities seem, however, to point in the same direction. Kenneth is nerdy and has no social skills, but he’s surprisingly charismatic for an older guy with a bad haircut, and—who knows?—he may be brilliant!—he claims, after all, to have invented a time machine, and if he’s telling the truth, he has got to be an amazing genius after all. And he wrote a very nice tune and accompanies himself in a very accomplished manner (on the zither), even if the lyrics are a bit sketchy. This is all okay. A romantic comedy where an unpleasant person, like Darius, finds love is perfectly okay. Suggesting that anyone is so unpleasant that it would be a good thing for her to submit herself totally to the plotting of an insane person (because he does have many good qualities and even an insane person deserves some happiness) is, I think, not so okay.
And (SPOILER ALERT!) Safety Not Guaranteed does end, as all the critics noted at the time, with a welcome if unexpected pairing-off. Of course—another spoiler alert!—he turns out to be not so totally insane after all . . . except for the lying, the past acts of violence, and the felonies . . . that we know about. But as with his ridiculously inept criminality, maybe that doesn’t matter so much, in what is after all a comedy. As I was watching, I thought, well, there’s a lot of bad male behavior in this movie, but it really could be almost a feminist movie . . . they’re really being quite intelligent about how they’re handling this . . . This is, however, to deconstruct a story that has three female characters, all either bitchy or seen as bitchy by the men; that focuses on the importance of making sure nerds get laid; that is interested in the subjectivity only of men, and is interested in the lives of men only in terms of how easy or difficult it is for men of different ages and personality types to get laid, and interested in the happiness of men only in terms of their finding women. The movies I feel are closest to Safety Not Guaranteed in terms of mood, story, and approach are It Happened One Night and Manhattan. Those are terrific movies, and Safety Not Guaranteed is good, too. I hope the follow-up does rather more to distinguish itself from GamerGate.