A small gang of newshounds go out of town on a jaunt to find out if a time travel ad is real, a jaunt that will lead to love, adventure and self knowing. Sounds like porridge, doesn't it? Well, read on.
Safety Not Guaranteed has so much going against it that I'd normally let it pass on spec but some hooks emerged from the used but smooth indy surface that first bade me choose it for my MIFF list and then (having missed out on that) compelled me to stroll into the Kino on Cup Day morning to enjoy a deluxe (ie empty auditorium) cinema experience of the piece.
The story quickly splits into two types of film that while disparate are closely related to each other: buddy movies and quirky love stories or, if you will, a Sideways stirred in with a Harold and Maude. This should fall but the reason it holds is that both threads are tightly woven with a firmly handled theme: risk.
Risk in chief, Kenneth's claim of time travel, has all the incredulity of the world around him biting a tit. Kenneth seems a sad loner, holding on to a dangerously unhinged notion of his own capabilities, supported by an equal delusion idea of his own importance (he thinks government agents are after him). Mark Duplass carries his role far from the mad garage professor that it might have been by allowing a profound sadness to show through as though it were impossible to conceal, as though he must by now be used to everyone around him recognising it. His delusions about his abilities and the government's interest in them ricochet off this sadness but not into ridicule but affection. We warm to him quickly and the question on our minds as to whether this self-aware indy is going to go into debunking his claim for comedy (as in Napolean Dynamite, a cousin film to this one) or pathos OR show its fulfillment. We just don't know until the point where we are not allowed not to.
The buddy movie thread neither intrudes nor suffers from tokenism as its performances, too, are strong. Cocky journalist Jeff attempts his own kind of time travel in seeking out his high school sweetheart. He feels his own ageing and must come to grips with it as well as the object of his nostalgia's obssession. The results have an appropriate maturity to them and in turn spur Jeff to take up the case of the nerdy Arnau with humility and digestible warmth. The climactic moment of this thread isn't funny but doesn't try to be, its founding solemnity bears it without effort.
The small central cast might not seem to be ensemble players considering the story keeps them apart for so much of the screen time but this does end up being a team effort. Well, I'd say that and leave it there were it not for Aubrey Plaza. Plaza's stand up and tv work (Parks and Recreation) form a kind of acerbic wit whose delivery borders on autism. A strange mix of gamer girl and shrewd beauty allow her to be both believably nerdy and seductive in the same scene. Her performance clearly takes her schtick way beyond the brand.
A surprise cast member is Kristen Bell who appears in a scene of game-changing revelation which deftly knocks our expectations out. Bell is known to a majority of what I take to be the imagined audience for this film who would know her from Veronica Mars and Heroes. She is not listed in the opening credits but her appearance in her scene stamps it with cruciality, her presence is saying, "pay attention".
The thing that really makes this film work against its own type, though, is that for all the lightness of the comedy present in almost every frame, the seriousness of its theme of regret and the risk needed to overcome it is played with strength. All comedies must have a kind of memento mori, a token of the grimness that they are asking us to face with laughter. Quirky comedies need this more than rom coms or they will simply fall into silliness (even Wes Anderson understands this, he's just crap at it). Harold and Maude's constant whimsy is bounded by the presence of death applied with equal force, making it one of the greatest comedies ever put on to a screen. I can think of no higher compliment to give Safety Not Guaranteed than to say that while it can't compete with Harold and Maude's power it joins a tiny group of films that go to the same place and come back stronger for the experience.
One of my films of the year. Still in cinemas at time of writing.