SXSW Review: Safety Not Guaranteed

2012 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
85 minutes

*****

“Safety Not Guaranteed” has a lot of things going for it: Mumblecore superstar Mark Duplass (in both a producing and acting capacity), the adorably dour Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and the prospect of time travel. Furthermore, it was shot in Seattle, which is relevant to the interests of certain movie critics who live there. How can you go wrong? Turns out you can’t. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is fantastic.

Plaza plays Darius, a young intern at a Seattle magazine who has, as her father puts it, “a cloud following” her. Her mother died when she was very young and it’s clear that she hasn’t let anyone else in since. She’s not averse to happiness, but she doesn’t seem to be working too hard to find it either.

When her hyper-superficial boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson) volunteers her and a shy colleague, Arnau, to accompany him on an investigative road trip, she doesn’t take the assignment seriously at first. None of them do. Their mission is to track down a man who placed a newspaper ad in which he claims the ability to travel back in time. He is seeking a cohort, but leaves no contact information other than a P.O. box located in a small town on the Washington coast. Conveniently, it’s the same town in which Jeff’s old high school flame currently resides.

When they find the man from the ad, he is a predictably eccentric fellow named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who is immediately suspicious of Jeff’s motives. Fortunately, Darius and Arno stayed out of sight, so the guys nominate “the pretty girl” to go under cover and make Kenneth believe that she is answering his ad in earnest. Darius begins “training” with Kenneth, learning all the skills that he deems essential for time travel. Kenneth is sweet and intense so it often seems like he may be telling the truth about his abilities. He certainly believes what he’s saying. Either way, Kenneth clearly has some wrongs in his past that he is desperate to make right. Darius certainly wouldn’t mind being able to go back and prevent her mother’s death.

Despite his volatile temper and paranoia, Kenneth soon softens to Darius, and she to him. Meanwhile, Jeff learns that true happiness has very little to do with appearance and Arnau learns to be a man.

The filmmakers keep us guessing till the end about whether Kenneth is just a charming lunatic or the real deal. But the heart of the story lies within Darius and Kenneth’s relationship. These are two broken people who somehow fit together perfectly, despite the fact that they don’t seem to fit anywhere else. That makes it sound like a sapfest, and I suppose it could have been, but Plaza and Duplass bring such a sincerity and affability to their roles that you would have to be a total asshole not to root for them. Don’t be that guy.

SXSW Review: Somebody Up There Likes Me

2012 SXSW INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated 
76 minutes

***

Film festivals used to be lousy with movies like “Somebody Up There Likes Me” – Movies that were dry, quirky (without being cutesy) and borderline inaccessible. You got head-scratchers that kept you talking with your friends for hours after the screening. You got films so divisive that sometimes those conversations would turn into full-on fights. Maybe it’s because even indie filmmakers have become concerned with marketability, but they really don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Director Bob Byington doesn’t much care about marketability. What he does care about is unclear. In fact, there is a lot of ambiguity in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”. But that’s also what makes it fun.

The story follows an ineffectual, impassive, Jack White-looking fellow named Max who has just failed to save his marriage by cutting corners in the flower department (he stole a telltale bouquet from a roadside grave). This is probably a metaphor for what went wrong in their relationship. He has the decency to return the flowers, but this, we soon learn, is a rare moment of morality for the character. It’s not that he’s a bad person, exactly. He’s just not a good person.

Max has absolutely zero aspirations. He lives from one moment to the next, succumbing to whims and random bits of advice. He courts and subsequently weds his quirky, carb-obsessed co-worker, Lyla, because a stranger tells him to just get that second marriage over with. Don’t feel bad for her, though. She’s just as unaffected as Max. Everyone is, including Max and Lyla’s lusty nanny, Lyla’s terminally ill father, and Max’s constant companion – a dimwitted sage named Sal (Nick Offerman). The film progresses in five-year intervals, marked by ethereal animations, which allude to a mysterious, light-exuding blue suitcase that Max keeps in his closet. It’s never revealed, but whatever is in that case makes the person who opens it very happy. In fact, the only time any character truly smiles is when they take a gander at its contents. The rest of the time, the characters make huge life decisions and handle love, loss, birth, death, fortune and misfortune with the same zombie-like detachment.

I should also mention that “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is billed as a comedy. There are jokes! Many of these jokes are even funny, but, if you become too preoccupied with trying to figure out the character motivations, you might forget to laugh. Then again, I don’t think any of these characters have any motivations. These are people who expect absolutely nothing out of life and want nothing, unless it’s convenient. And yet, life keeps happening to them.

The acting is so stylized that it’s difficult to praise the performances. Their uniform nonchalant tone evokes the deliberate direction of a Wes Anderson film. Delightfully, Nick Offerman is such a charismatic presence, that he can’t help but inject just a hint of impish Ron Swansonism.

Wes Anderson parallels run deeper than the hipster soundtrack (by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio) and deadpan delivery. Max becomes a profoundly neglectful father, at times channeling Royal Tenenbaum. We don’t get to see how this affects his son, Lyle, until the boy is a man. But Lyle might be the only character in the film capable of emotions.

Though everyone around Max develops signs of aging (a gray streak here, a wrinkle there), his own appearance never changes. Perhaps this is indicative of a lack of personal growth or maybe there’s a Dorian Gray thing at play with that suitcase. Either way, its symbolism can’t be ignored. Byington certainly has something to say here, but he leaves it up to the audience to figure out what that is.

If you see this movie, you’ll have to tell me how you interpret it, but here’s what I think: The film posits that life is arbitrary. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is an ironic title which alludes to the popular notion that there is a God and he has a plan (or is that Cylons?). Whether or not there is a God in Byington’s universe, he most certainly does not have a plan. It doesn’t matter how you choose to live your life, be it by working your ass off or hardly working. Good things and bad things will come to you in equal measure. But the things that happen to you aren’t what matter. Somebody up there might be doling out your ups and downs, but what’s most important is that somebody down here likes you. Otherwise, your life is a waste.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).