Film experience review: “Safety Not Guaranteed”

On Thursday night a friend texted me, saying she’d won a double pass to a film that evening. It was clear she’d also texted others, as her sms ended with the challenge “First one writing back gets the goods….” My weakness in the face of free stuff is well-documented; I also like watching films. I was in.

The film was Safety Not Guaranteed. In the twenty or so minutes I had between getting home and going out again I managed to piece together that it was about a classified ad relating to time travel, that it was a comedy, and that it was highly regarded on Rotten Tomatoes. What more does one need to know?

Let me begin my thoughts by saying that I’m a recent convert to going to the cinema. It is something I hadn’t done in aeons, my formative experiences of it mainly involving teenage boys and teenage girls and all sorts of combinations of the two. This wasn’t helped by the experiences of a friend of mine who worked for one cinema chain and told me in rather unnerving detail of the various fluids he encountered in the course of his work. Urgh.

Last year my experiences began to change for the better with that wondrous film, The Muppets. I got a free double pass to this bad boy and man did it rock my world. The film itself is first-rate: you simply have not lived until you’ve seen “Man or Muppet” performed on the big screen. Not only that, the experience was almost blissful. There was something about being enclosed in that bubble, of having blocked out an hour, two hours, simply to watch and digest a film. It’s relaxing, it’s escapist, it’s profoundly enjoyable. There’s something womb-like about a good cinema, and I dig that.

So even before the film begins I’m having a great time. I’m sitting in a cosy red seat in Melbourne’s Nova Carlton. I’ve got the ginger beer, I’ve got the cashews. It’s on.

And the film? Ace.

Safety Not Guaranteed is about a three-person journalistic team working on a story about a man who placed a classified ad seeking a partner in time travel – their preconception being that he is doubtless a nut. One member of this team is Darius, a young, pretty, but altogether useless and unfulfilled intern at “Seattle Magazine”. She, we are led to understand, is poor at life. Her co-intern is Arnaut, a gormless Indian student of biotechnology. They are ‘led’, if we can use such a word in the circumstances, by a reckless horndog, Jeff, who primarily took the job on to try to score with his high school sweetheart.

Kenneth, the aspiring time-traveller, accepts Darius as his partner, and they begin to prepare, mainly by working on shooting things. As the movie progresses, the two of them grow closer in a romantic blossoming that, despite the pronounced difference in their ages, is much more sweet than sinister. Simultaneously, Jeff is wooing the Liz of his high school years while trying to get Arnaut to loosen up and score with some of the local ladies.

The inter-character dynamics are a huge part of what I enjoyed about this film. Each character is slightly unrealistic, basically a caricature. But their exaggerated personalities result in hilarious conversations and situations. Darius, Arnaut, and Jeff, form a team that is largely dysfunctional but altogether wholesome and bound together somehow, with the juxtaposition of Darius’ disillusionment, Arnaut’s gormlessness (there is really no other word for it) and Jeff’s exuberance providing hilarious and touching moments.

Further, Darius and Kenneth have a lovely chemistry. Kenneth is the archetypal lovable loner. Through high school, a cosmetic disfigurement made him a target for bullies until, as he assures Darius, he developed his martial skills. It initially seems that he has retreated into an absurd fantasy, established by his belief in time travel, an apparent paranoia that people are following him, and a preoccupation with Star Wars figurines.

Darius’ lack of bullshit seems to work with this, her commitment to a professional outcome gently being sidelined by a nascent love for the man – especially as she realises that people are actually following him, and that, just maybe, he is the real deal. While it’s predictable that their romance develops, the ups and downs of it, the moments of pathos and beauty, are genuine and revealing. Without wanting to give too much away, if you’ve ever fallen in love with a strange loner 20 years your senior, this movie may move you to tears. (Then again, falling in love with a strange loner 20 years your senior may do that in itself. )

Moreover, this love story is part of a plot that is altogether ingenious. The pacing is spot on. At no point does the story drag, yet there is ample time to explore the subtleties of each character. In addition, the twists and turns are pure delight. The revelation that government operatives are following Kenneth comes at just the right time to take the whole plot to a new height; there is also a marvellous twist when Jeff’s editor does a little fact-checking on the story that he has sent her. Safety Not Guaranteed is a great example of storytelling and of how to hold a viewer’s interest.

Finally, the soundtrack is excellent. There isn’t much commentary or analysis here. Simply, the songs, most written by Ryan Miller, match the movie perfectly. They deepen and enhance its magic. Each song is also a gem of musical goodness, well worth listening to in its own right. I have my eyes on this one.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a film that will make you happy. Whether you delight in the story, the characters, the dialogue, the romance, or the soundtrack, you’ll find this film to be well-executed and enjoyable.

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