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.
Based on the bestseller by Nicolas Sparks the film begins with Duke (James Garner) and Allie (Gena Rowlands) an inseparable couple living in a nursing home. While Duke remembers their life together Allie who suffers from progressive dementia does not. Their only bond is a faded notebook from which Duke reads to Allie every day telling her the same story over and over. It's a sweeping tale of two South Carolina teens country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) and city gal Allie (Rachel McAdams) who spend one glorious summer in the early 1940s falling madly in love. Unfortunately the couple is soon separated first by her disapproving parents and then by World War II but after seven years apart after taking different paths they are passionately reunited. There's a catch though; Allie is now faced to choose between the man she once loved and the successful businessman (James Marsden) she is engaged to. It's really no surprise who the young Allie chooses in the end--but for Duke the only thing that keeps him going is the fact that every day somehow through the power of this story the mentally impaired Allie miraculously remembers their love if only for a very brief moment before slipping back into oblivion. Tears being jerked from your eyes yet?
The talented cast certainly elevates The Notebook's romantic drudgery. McAdams takes a departure from all the Mean Girls she's played lately (including The Hot Chick) and easily wins you over as the spirited young Allie while the usually intense Gosling also tackles something lighter so to speak than his previous darker roles such as his Jewish-turned-American Nazi leader in The Believer. While infusing a certain sense of brooding and melancholy into Noah especially in the years he spends pining for Allie Gosling manages to exude Noah's genuine warmth and sensitivity as well. And between the two of them real sparks fly as the actors paint a fresh and inviting picture of young love that stands the test of time. Marsden is completely wasted however as Allie's fiancé Lon a upstanding Southern gentleman Allie's parents expect her to marry who offers little as to why Allie should stay with him. As the older contingency veterans Garner and Rowlands who take the sappiest material and turn it into something meaningful inspire some truly heart-ripping moments as the aging couple holding onto their love as tight as they can. In the supporting cast Joan Allen has some shining moments as Allie's uptight mother with a secret of her own.
In bringing the popular novel about enduring love to life director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars) may have used his own experiences having seen his parents--the late John Cassavetes and his lady love and muse Gena Rowlands--play out their own real-life love affair. Cassavettes gets to the heart of the material right away and permeates the screen with the beautiful surroundings of South Carolina where The Notebook was filmed. We glide through lush moss-filled swamps and sleepy Southern towns marvel at languid shots of the South Carolina coastline. It's very clear Cassavetes has a way with actors much like his father did gently coaxing realistic performances from his young somewhat untested leads while allowing old guards like Garner and Rowlands to simply work their magic (imagine telling your Oscar-nominated mother how to act. Right). The problem is the story itself which not only offers nothing new to the romance genre but also isn't very compelling. There are no great tragedies (save perhaps for the whole dementia thing) no real villainous presence to keep the lovers apart no peril at all. It's boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl boy-wins-girl-back--ho-hum. Where's the sudsy soap opera when you need it?