When he’s not acting, Mark Duplass is an accomplished writer and director. Anyone interested in contemporary independent film should check out The Puffy Chair and Baghead (and, while not independent, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home), the first movies he wrote and directed with his brother, Jay. As an actor — in his own film The Puffy Chair, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday (TMT Review), and Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, among other things — he turns out to have the ancillary talent of being a natural star. True, he only seems fit as a leading man for these kind of small, willfully eccentric movies; his thrift store aesthetic and somewhat mush-mouthed speech would be thankfully out of place in, say, Leonardo DiCaprio territory. But he’s handsome, possesses an effortless affability, and, perhaps because his own films aim to capture just this, he’s capable of subtly conveying some of the turmoil inside of his characters’ heads. Safety Not Guaranteed, the worst film he’s yet acted in, fails most obviously when trying to utilize that last of Duplass’ talents. It never even finds the courage to decide what exactly his turmoil is.
Duplass plays Kenneth, a reclusive, eccentric Grocery Outlet clerk who for shelter squats in a comfy cabin — the covered-in-moss kind you can find tucked under many a thicket of drenched forest in rural pockets of the Pacific Northwest. This provides adequate cover for Kenneth’s all-consuming hobby: the construction of time machines. Kenneth likes to rant to his coworkers about the myopic thinking practiced by most experts in theoretical physics. He feels he can make time travel work. In fact, he feels he already has, and he wants to again. But a partner seems essential for his second trip, so he’s placed an ad in a Seattle newspaper, and it’s caught the attention of a small group of bemused readers.
One of these is Jeff (Jake Johnson), a glib, coiffed, hack writer for Seattle Magazine. Jeff pitches Kenneth’s ad (“Wanted: someone to go back in time with me…”) as a story idea, secures a stipend from his editor and two interns for his legwork, and heads to the small coastal town where Kenneth is hiding to dredge him up and make fun of him in print. But Jeff — who not once resembles a man with any interest in writing — instead sets out to seduce an old high school flame (his conquest becomes an increasingly distracting secondary plot line), leaving one of his interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), to tend to the actual journalistic task of tracking down and investigating Kenneth.
Unlike Kenneth, who, through Duplass’s performance, provides the spark that occasionally gives Safety Not Guaranteed the illusion of profundity, Darius is simply not an interesting character. Her type is ever-present in modern movies: the lost twenty-something in love with her own malaise. She accepted the Kenneth assignment not so much to get a byline on a big story but to take a break from her listless life in Seattle. But like most wandering middle-class, would-be professionals (in the movies, at least) all she needed was the right kind of eccentric handsome-man to show her where true happiness lies. Ostensibly trying to piece together the facts of the story that Jeff will write, Darius digs as deep as the movie will allow her into Kenneth’s life. This translates into a lot of scenes in which they sing together around campfires, practice shooting guns in the woods, and posit time travel destinations at nondescript diners. It’s all quick, cute, heavy on the montages, and, not surprisingly, it leads to her falling for him.
Or at least, falling for his eccentricity. On the issue of his crazed insistence that he can jump through time, Darius can’t quite bring herself to give Kenneth the benefit of the doubt. And for a simple reason: she’s a sketchily-drawn character (played less than competently) whose emotions oscillate according to the whims of a movie that has no firm idea of how she should (or does) feel. Safety Not Guaranteed naively (yet smugly) presents Kenneth as neither nut nor genius but rather as an esoteric weirdo, while Darius reacts to whichever guise the movie puts him in with the same blank-faced credulity. The unwillingness (or inability) to provide insight into Kenneth’s sad psychology is the get-out-of-jail-free card that the film employs whenever serious issues like sanity, paranoia, love, or a basic understanding of quantum physics are broached. Kenneth is evasively — rather than mysteriously drawn — while Darius’s outline is so thin and malleable that she’s all-but nonexistent within Plaza’s detached coolness. Both are techniques of characterization that neatly avoid the need to hold anyone, least of all the filmmakers, accountable for their actions.
The problem is, director Colin Trevorrow doesn’t know what he’s doing. He mishandles the shots, which tend to accidentally shift frame and cut off essential parts of the actors’ faces. He jumps around spatially, because he seems to feel he owes an equal amount of screen time to every shot he’s filmed. He botches the color (or rather his DP does, but he should be paying attention, too) which often doesn’t match even within scenes. Worst of all, he has little concept of pacing and consistent characterization. The key to covering up all this amateurish filmmaking, Trevorrow seems to assume, is vague misdirection dressed up as deliberate ambiguity. So unfortunately Duplass, clearly trying to deliver a tender performance, winds up looking stranded, as if he, and not Trevorrow, was the one who couldn’t decide who his character is supposed to be.