Safety Not Guaranteed (M). Director: Colin Trevorrow. Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson. 85 minutes
'Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.'
During the middle of last decade this ad, originally a joke classified published in 1997 in the American Backwoods Home Magazine, spawned an internet fad featuring a photo of a stony-faced, mullet-headed man as the purported time traveller. The tone of much of the ensuing parody was farcical.
Screenwriter Derek Connolly and director Trevorrow take a different approach to the same source material, opting for empathy over ridicule.
They envisage the kind of person who might feel compelled to place such an ad. Their answer comes in the form of Kenneth (Duplass) — maybe delusional, certainly eccentric, but motivated by a desire to rectify past mistakes. In short the filmmakers have taken a quirky time travel premise and turned it into a fable about regret.
They develop this theme through Kenneth's relationship with cynical magazine intern Darius (Plaza), who sets out to help glib senior journalist Jeff (Johnson) write a puff piece about the oddball Kenneth, but is gradually won over by the sincerity that underpins his strange behaviour.
Kenneth's pain over his past resonates with Darius's own deeply felt regrets (both backstories are revealed as the film progresses). The film elicits much warmth from the coming together of these two social misfits.
Like the comedies of Alexander Payne, Safety Not Guaranteed expresses humour and pathos at once. Comic scenes in which Darius (posing as a genuine respondent to the ad) rehearses combat moves alongside a deadly serious Kenneth; and in which Kenneth is caught by the employees of a science lab he is burgling, only to have them call tentatively for him to halt as he makes his getaway unimpeded, enhance rather than diminish its heart.
Even the film's most broadly comic subplot, involving narcissist Jeff's attempts to reunite with a former girlfriend, chimes with the film's exploration of the human desire to resolve regret by returning to the past.
Resolution for Jeff lies in the agony and necessity of letting go. For Kenneth and Darius, on the other hand, hope may be found in rather more metaphysical possibilities. The film's weird and wondrous climax is executed with the same compelling assurance with which Trevorrow pulls together the whole unlikely scenario.
The song 'The Big Machine', written for the film by Bostonian muso Ryan Miller, is performed by Kenneth for Darius, beside a campfire on the eve of the mission. Despite containing one of the film's more contrived eccentric flourishes (Kenneth accompanies himself on the zither), the song poignantly encompasses the film's theme of tyring to transcend 'normal' everyday society and pursue something better:
Everyone in the big machine tries to break your heart ...
Maybe I'm wrong and all that you get is what you see.
But maybe I'm right and there's something out there to believe.
At its heart, then, Safety Not Guaranteed is a spiritual film.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.