As a bearded hysterical Matthew Fox once said “We have to go back.” A simple phrase that proved inexorably memorable. The wish to go back in time — to relive the better days to prevent the worse — is universal. It’s a wish fueled by nostalgia and regret that makes up such a sorrowfully large component of man’s core. And it’s a wish that is right at the center of Safety Not Guaranteed a movie that tries very hard to do justice to its powerful theme.
Colin Trevorrow’s feature debut attacks the idea from a few different angles. In fact quite literally. The story opens with the abrupt introduction of a so-called nutcase (mumblecore king Mark Duplass) who is planning a voyage back to the year 2001 via a time machine he has allegedly built. Of course no one believes him. Not the sour crass magazine journalist (New Girl's Jake M. Johnson) whose job it is to chronicle the missions of this lunatic. Not his timid lonely med-student tagalong (Karan Soni). And of course not the center of the whole expedition: Darius (Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza) the listless friendless post-grad magazine intern who is plagued by overt apathy and a bridled remorse over her mother’s untimely death several years earlier. Not at first anyway.
Darius agrees to the out-of-town excursion primarily to escape monotony. Arnau jumps on the bandwagon to bolster his résumé but also to stay close to Darius on whom he has a very obvious and very uncomfortable crush. And Jeff (Johnson) is actually on a quest to reunite with an old summer flame from his much happier teen years. All three characters embody the theme being driven home by Safety Not Guaranteed as does — most of all — aforementioned oddball Kenneth (Duplass) whose journey back in time revolves around his own attempt to recapture the lost love of a former girlfriend.
The pulp is there. The problem is the film never truly figures out how to showcase its internal. We never learn enough even subtextually about Darius to understand or appreciate her character entirely. The same goes for Kenneth — who yes is supposed to be mysterious but is also supposed to be sympathetic. Instead he remains at the same distance from the audience throughout the film; we never really figure out if he’s off his rocker or someone who just looks at the world differently.
The film is often a fun one: it serves as a playground for traditional ideas on the well-tread territory of time travel. Time travel tropes are tossed around with a quirky humor and an emotional investment in the genre the way real world friends might discuss the hypothetical. All starring parties and their supporting cast members are endearing and funny. But the emotionality never hits the stride it seems to be going for.
We know that the stories of Darius Kenneth Jeff and Arnau are supposed to be painful. Unfortunately not enough attention is paid to building these people’s heartbreaks. They come off as a bit superficial. As such their separate emotional storylines linked only in spirit come off as a bit disjointed.
At points the film’s stars’ performances seem like less gripping versions of their television characters. The most winning scene actually comes from the cast newcomer Soni whose grief-stricken Arnau could well hit a nerve for a few viewers. Admittedly some might fault Soni and his character for borrowing from the well of racial stereotypes — but that argument aside his personal climax makes his character the movie’s most memorable strength.
Safety Not Guaranteed has plenty of good in it and will most likely keep a willing participant entertained from beginning to end. It’s fun funny and conducive to the plight of the nerd slacker artist or whatever type of outcast group you might fall into. Unfortunately the film never climbs to the point of being as powerful a movie as its contents could justifiably make it. To put it in apropos time travel terms: you can muster up as many gigawatts of linoleum as you can find but without that flux capacitor at the center you’re not really going anywhere.
The man-child: a staple character for modern comedy and notoriously known for being played one-note. They get the laugh they get out.
But turning the lovable goofball or zoned-out knucklehead into something more is no easy task—which makes Paul Rudd's work in Our Idiot Brother that much more impressive. Rudd's Earth-friendly farmer Ned (the closest thing to a new Lebowski we've seen since the original) finds himself down on his luck after being entrapped by a police officer looking for pot. After a stint in jail he abandons his rural hippie commune for the big city to take shelter with his three sisters. Unfortunately for Ned his three siblings Liz (Emily Mortimer) Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) are as equally displaced and confused from the ebb and flow of life—albeit with severely different perspectives of the world.
Liz struggles to put her kid in private school and keep her marriage to documentary filmmaker/scumbag Dylan (Steve Coogan) intact. Miranda claws her way to the top of Vanity Fair's editorial staff and shuns her flirtatious neighbor (Adam Scott). Natalie stresses over her commitment issues with girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones) leaving little time or patience for Ned's bumbling antics. Sound like a lot of plot? While the manic lives of Ned's sisters click symbolically with his journey to get back on his feet it makes for one sporadic narrative.
Like a series of vignettes Our Idiot Brother never gels but when director Jesse Peretz finds a moment of unadulterated Nedisms to throw up on screen the movie hits big. Whether it's Ned teaching his nephew how to fight accidentally romancing his sister's interview subject or infiltrating his ex-girlfriend's house to steal his dog Willie Nelson the movie relies heavily on Ned's antics and its smart to do so. But thin throughlines for its supporting don't hold a candle to Rudd doing his thing.
And its a testament to Rudd's versatility—the man has done everything from Shakespeare and raunchy Judd Apatow comedies after all—that makes the movie watchable. Rudd gives dimensionality to his nincompoop character allowing darker emotions to creep in when necessary. There's a point in the film when Ned gives up fighting for his type-A sisters' affection and it's some of the best material Rudd's ever delivered. But like one of Ned's lit joints Our Idiot Brother can quickly fizzle out leading to plodding plot twists and sentimental conclusions. Mortimer Banks and Deschanel are great actresses—here they drift through their scenes and come out in the end changed. Because they have to.
Our Idiot Brother tries to take the Apatow model to the indie scene and comes through with so-so results. Only Rudd's able to find something to latch on to to build upon to warm up to. In an unexpected twist it's the man-child who seems the most grown up.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Set in a seaside English town in the '80s this small heartfelt tale centers on the relationship between Edward a 10-year-old boy whose parents run a retirement home and Clarence an aging magician and recent widower who is one of the new residents. Lonely and curious Edward has a habit of befriending the old folks only to search for their ghosts after they die. When Clarence comes in both learn new life lessons as the older one comes to terms with his past while the younger boy finds reason for optimism as he faces the future.
WHO’S IN IT?
Michael Caine is wonderful in a startling character role in which the 76-year-old movie icon allows himself to look older drawn and beaten in parts of the film. Although the career of the two-time Oscar winner has been full of memorable performances ranging from Alfie in 1966 to The Dark Knight last year it’s this kind of realistic and moving portrayal that has marked the best of his work. and he’s never been better than in this memorable portrait of a forgotten magician who still manages to discover a couple of new tricks late in life. Matching him every step of the way is the engaging Bill Milner (Son of Rambow) who manages to go toe-to-toe with a screen legend without coming off as a too precocious of a child actor. He’s haunting and extremely natural in a pivotal three-dimensional role that never seems forced. Helping matters immensely is a great ensemble of splendid British stars who play the other residents including the great Rosemary Harris Leslie Phillips Sylvia Syms and Peter Vaughan.
Director John Crowley (Boy A Intermission) wisely lets his actors off the leash to create a chemistry that makes the modest story work its own kind of movie magic. Reminiscent in certain ways of the kind of British kitchen-sink dramas popular in the '60s Crowley resists any opportunity to let directorial flash overwhelm this poignant character-driven tale thereby letting it thrive on its own terms.
With such a superlative cast of British-acting royalty in the supporting roles you almost wish there were a few more scenes showcasing these characters in the film’s trim 91-minute running time.
Clarence rallies his talents to put on a magic show for the home’s residents. Caine pulls this off seamlessly and the sequence is pure delight.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
This quaint film won’t lose anything on TV screens and may be hard to find in wide release so take the opportunity to see it any way you can.