Friday, June 22, 2012

"Guaranteed" Fun

Let's be honest with ourselves: it's been a truly shitty year for movies. Here we are, halfway done with 2012, and there have honestly been only three, maybe four great movies released so far this year. Marvel's The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods, 21 Jump Street, and Moonrise Kingdom. That's it. The rest might have had some intriguing aspects or honestly good moments, but have gone on to be either disappointing or incomplete or just plain bad. Actually, there have been even fewer BAD movies than GREAT ones this year, as most of the movies I've seen have fallen into the dreaded 'Blah' category. It's as if Hollywood's continually typing monkeys have been bucking the odds, failing to even deliver any spectacularly awful experiences. As more and more films come out that fail to live up to even modest expectations, I sometimes find myself ambivalent at the prospect of going to the theater; I've had too many dour moments this year with movies I had fully expected to love. The Five Year Engagement should have been fun. Silent House should have been scary. Wrath of the Titans should have been exciting. How many disappointments do I have to endure before I actually get to something with legitimate MEAT?

Woo! Road trip!
It turns out I only had to wait until Safety Not Guaranteed came to town. The film stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius, an emotionally reserved intern at Seattle Magazine, who has been depressed and withdrawn since the tragic death of her mother several years previously. The perennially-sarcastic Darius has been selected alongside gaming nerd intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to accompany columnist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) to a small Washington town, which was the origin of a mysterious, inspired classified ad...

"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."

The trail leads the trio to Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a retail employee who really seems to believe that he is building a machine to visit the past. For the story, Darius gets close to him and the pair bond over improvised shooting ranges and grand theft auto. While everybody else seems to think that Kenneth is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, Darius begins to believe that Kenneth is not as insane as they all seem to think... but what's crazier? That Kenneth believes he can go back in time? Or the idea that he might ACTUALLY be able to do it?

Yeah, because this location's not skeevy at all...
Believe it or not, that last question is not answered for the first 85 minutes of an 86-minute movie. From a storytelling aspect, this is quite the big deal, as the audience is constantly torn in wondering whether Kenneth can actually put together his machine or is simply nuts. In keeping this secret, director Colin Trevorrow (in his feature film debut) manages to infuse a typical character-driven film with a brilliantly understated science fiction premise. Trevorrow himself has referred to this particular style (in an interview with Open Letters Monthly's Lock Peterseim) as "low sci-fi", a growing sub-genre that looks to also include the upcoming Beasts of the Southern Wild. The genre works especially well with low-budget titles, and Safety Not Guaranteed is a perfect example of a film that doesn't do TOO much to betray its simple but powerful motivations.

When the orgy came into discussion, everybody became interested.
Those motivations include incredibly genuine characters that at first appear as mere caricatures before spawning lives of their own. Johnson is probably the best non-lead  a foul-mouthed, foul-minded writer using his story as a false front for reconnecting with an old flame. Soni takes the cliche of a lonely, awkward, over-achieving nerd and makes it one of the most honest performances of 2012. And yet they are almost window dressing for Plaza and Duplass, whose deeply rich personalities are the film's main course. Plaza of course plays to her angst-ridden, sarcastic strengths in the beginning, but really displays an openness and vulnerability that you've never seen in her work on Parks and Recreations and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Her Darius is such a damaged and introverted creature in the beginning, which is interesting enough, but the real strength of her performance is when she begins to trust Kenneth and open herself up to both him and us, revealing what we never would have guessed. Duplass is even better, easily straddling the line between misunderstood genius and dangerous lunatic. Everything in the character of Kenneth means something, from his awkwardness with the opposite sex to his seeming inability to use (or conscious decision to abstain from using) curse words. He's simultaneously every awkward guy you've met and something completely separate, all in one body. It's often the mix of Duplass' obtuseness with Plaza's sweet sarcasm that makes some of the movie's best scenes. The supporters do really get a chance to shine, but this film definitely belongs to Duplass and Plaza.

This is what Aubrey Plaza calls a smile.
After so many duds and disappointing debuts, it was nice to receive tangible value for my movie ticket this week. Safety Not Guaranteed might not have reached your local theater yet, but if you can get around to seeing it in the theater, this indie gem is well worth your time. As the #4 movie of 2012, it has attained a level of quality that few films this year have. Duplass especially is having a big year, from co-directing Jeff, Who Lives at Home and starring in the upcoming Your Sister's Sister and People Like Us. I'd love to make him the success story of 2012. So give this title a shot; this is so much more than a "can he or can't he" sci-fi tale, and the excellent characters succeed in drawing you in where very few recent titles have. A definite must-see.

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