'Safety': Enjoyment Not Guaranteed
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Another waft of indie milkweed, "Safety Not Guaranteed" won't stay with you much longer than it takes to walk out of the theater. Only audiences hooked on quirky romantic comedy unruffled by grown-up passion or personality will sink happily into the warm bathwater that is "Safety." First-time feature director Colin Trevorrow's fey tale features clueless Hansels and a Gretel abroad in the land of whimsy, deadpan and twee, hoping to stumble onto a way home.
"Safety"'s disoriented 20-somethings are Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation"), Jake Johnson ("New Girl") and Karan Soni ("Touch") -- each recognizable as a one-dimensional type currently swarming TV sitcoms, especially those that feature "girl" in their titles. The film's certified as authentic oddball indie by the shambling presence of Mark Duplass ("Jeff, Who Lives at Home," "Your Sister's Sister"). Where skinny little Woody Allen once was king of the nebbishes, Duplass now rules. A soft, cuddly baby-man, his deadpan delivery suggests affectation and arrested development of the sweetest kind.
When he happens upon a personals ad seeking a sidekick for time travel ("Must bring your own weapon. Safety not guaranteed."), a slick Seattle Magazine reporter jumps on the chance to scoop a juicy backstory -- and enjoy a paid vacation. Shanghaiing two hapless interns, he heads for the Oregon Coast burg of Ocean View.
Our trio's a needy lot, to greater and lesser degrees. Jeff (Johnson), who lives in a condo, has just managed to boff his sharp-tongued editor (Mary Lynn Rajskub, criminally wasted), and it wasn't all this callow womanizer wanted it to be. That's pretty much the story of the dude's empty life: not empty in any tortured, furrowed-brow way, more like how you feel when you finish a Starbucks latte and it wasn't the best you've ever had and there isn't any more. Jeff's looking to hook up with an old high school sweetheart who gave him his first BJ, apparently his peak life experience.
Young Darius (Plaza) personifies Pacific Northwest droop: monotoning sarcasm; drab, genderless couture; expressions that run the gamut from affectless to too-cool-to-care. (Plaza's done "Portlandia.") She's never quite recovered from her mother's death, largely because Darius believes her childish yen for chocolate milk from the 7-Eleven sent mom into harm's way. Now our girl's sour, funny philosophy is to "just expect the worst -- and try not to get my hopes up." Third wheel Arnau (Soni) is a dorky innocent for whom Jeff, ever the idealist, prescribes immediate emergency deflowering.
The time-travelling wannabe is Kenneth Calloway (Duplass), a supermarket cashier who lives in a dilapidated shack out in the woods. Paranoid and endearingly deranged, this guy's a holy fool. The big lug's single-minded crave to go back in time to rescue his first love provides the kind of direction and purpose that eludes the Seattleites. Mr. Fixit means to return to the time when it all went wrong and make repairs. The sad truth about his lost dream girl undermines his pristine vision only a little -- as does falling for Darius, who swiftly morphs from mole to weirdo soul mate and fellow traveler.
Time-traveling becomes a nifty metaphor for the universal desire for second chances. And in that vein, the pilgrimage to Oregon's scenic coast unravels a string of eye-opening experiences for our investigative reporters. And I do mean string. One scene follows another, not in any organic way, but as lackadaisically and arbitrarily as the characters' search for significance. The movie's characters don't have relationships; they bounce off or stick to each other either in predictable or utterly random ways. Weak writing and clumsy cinematography don't help: A couple of budget-conserving montage sequences, largely silent, fail to plump up a story line too thin for a full-length movie.
Something fundamentally bogus lies at the "warm" heart of "Safety Not Guaranteed," the existential worm in lots of contemporary romantic comedy. Cocooned in so-hip-it-hurts smugness, these faux fairy tales perpetuate the sophomoric notion that deadpan quirk and snark are just cover for all that's really warm and cuddly and true. Safe inside that kind of time warp, no one ever needs to grow up.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.