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Entries in mark duplass (3)


Safety Not Guaranteed

WARNING: Heavy spoilers follow. My reaction to the film hinges very much on key plot points, including the ending, and to put my reaction and accompanying score into context, it’s impossible to avoid them.

Safety Not Guaranteed has all the ingredients for a great movie. It has (mostly) charming characters each with their own defined backstories and personalities, an odd but interesting story and relationships that ring true, but it doesn’t capitalize on them. There are a number of nagging issues with all those aspects. By the time the end credits roll around, your initial reaction of greatness will have faded to mere adequacy, but it’s not that Safety Not Guaranteed is particularly bad. It just has so much potential and fails to live up to it.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is not the happiest girl in the world. Her father is in a poor state, her mother was killed years ago and she can’t find a job. The best she can do is land an unpaid internship at a Seattle magazine where she is underappreciated by her boss, Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and given menial tasks to do, like changing the toilet paper in the bathrooms. One day, she lands a story with journalist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and another intern named Arnau (Karan Soni) investigating a strange ad that recently popped up in the papers: someone is asking for a partner to join him in time travel. Believing this man to be nothing more than a kook, the three head out to his neck of the woods and apply for the job. While Arnau and Jeff stand back, Darius befriends the man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who begins to train her in preparation for their eventual journey.

Safety Not Guaranteed could have easily been a mean-spirited movie, one that poked fun at Kenneth for believing in something that many think is impossible. It could have made him look like a mentally challenged madman and in another, less sophisticated film, that probably would have been the case, but here he is treated with respect. His willingness and wanting to go back in time is so sincere you can’t help but love him, a notion the filmmakers rightfully realized early on. His relationship with Darius is tended to so well that she begins to believe that he may be the real deal, as does the audience.

Of course, the realization that his plan won’t actually work floats around in the back of the viewer’s mind while watching. This story is grounded in reality (and is actually based on an actual Backwoods Home Magazine ad from 1997) and such a story would never go so far as to actually send them back in time. But then it does. The film culminates in Darius hopping aboard a time travelling machine with Jeff and heading back to 2001, a time period chosen so Darius can stop her mother from being killed and Jeff can try to win the affections of a young crush named Belinda (Kristen Bell). This ending is baffling, comes out of nowhere and somehow manages to both succeed and fail on parallel levels.

Because the story is about time travel and, more specifically, about a man who is wanted by the government for stealing high tech equipment, a realistic ending would not be sufficient. Had the time travelling machine failed, Jeff would have immediately been shipped off to jail and Darius along with him for being an accomplice. A happy ending would be impossible, so by sending them off together, the film nails the emotional ending it was striving for. However, because the film built their relationship to a certain romantic point, where they had fallen in love with each other, their motivations for going back in time become moot. Jeff no longer needs to go back to 2001 to win over Belinda. He has Darius (his last line of the movie is actually along the lines of, “I’m not going back for her anymore, I’m going back for you”), so what’s the point? Similarly, if Darius were to stop her mother from being killed, as she would understandably want to do, her entire life trajectory would change, meaning she never would have met Jeff and none of this would have happened.

The ending also brings to question many of the scenes that came before, including why Jeff would insist on survival training (which includes the usage of firearms) if they were only travelling back to 2001. Had he just been crazy or living out some absurd fantasy, his irrational behaviors would have made since, and do at the time, but they don’t upon reflection because he’s not crazy. He’s more sane than anyone in the movie. This off-the-wall ending works on basic human levels and will provide an emotionally happy ending for those wanting one, but it also punches numerous holes in its plot, some so gaping you could fit an aircraft carrier through them.

Aside from the main plot, there are also a couple side stories involving Arnau as he learns how to win ladies over and Jeff as he tries to rekindle an old flame, but both are merely filler, uninteresting diversions that stretch out its runtime to an already bare 85 minutes. Up until that ending, though, the main story will grab ahold of you. The characters are well written and the performances bring them to life. Despite some key dramatic moments being punctuated by uncomfortable bits of humor, the movie makes you care, but that feeling of disappointment lingers on. Safety Not Guaranteed looked like it could have been one of the best of the year. Instead, it’s merely serviceable.

Safety Not Guaranteed receives 3/5


Your Sister's Sister

Your Sister’s Sister begins with a somber moment. One year after the death of a man named Tom, his friends and family have gotten together to remember him. Most talk about how special and kind he was, a person who was always willing to lend a helping hand, but his still grieving brother, Jack (Mark Duplass), remembers him differently. He remembers him as the little hellion he was when they were kids, before everybody else in the room met him. After ranting about how terrible he could be (not out of hate, but out of his disgust for people who claim to know so much about him, but really don’t), his best friend and Tom’s ex-girlfriend, Iris (Emily Blunt), tells him to take a load off and get away for a while. She tells him to go to her father’s cabin where he will be shut off from the world, but when he gets there, he finds her lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has also retreated there to get away from a difficult situation.

This is where the movie takes a turn. It becomes more humorous and the two characters who have never met each other before begin to form a bond. After a long night of drinking, they end up having sex with each other. What’s clear in these early moments is that the characters are indeed facing central problems that motivate their actions, but the movie smartly never dwells on them. It never forces us to feel bad for either of them, instead allowing us to make up our own minds based on what they do and say, not how the screenplay wants us to feel.

A large portion of this could be because of its improvised nature, a staple of the recent so-called mumblecore film movement, but this isn’t like, say, Humpday, which consisted of 10 written pages with no dialogue. Your Sister’s Sister is a 70 page treatment that clearly has a narrative and emotional path in mind, yet it allows the actors to forge that path themselves. It’s the best blending of mumblecore with traditional filmmaking to date.

But while the characters are strongly defined through equal parts performance and writing, they’re stuck in a story that would feel like a gimmick in a romantic comedy. When Iris shows up the next morning after Jack and Hannah’s rendezvous, a number of things are learned, of which I’ll leave secret for fear of revealing spoilers. Although the events are handled more delicately than they would be in a more conventional rom-com, they are no less banal and inconsequential, the latter adjective used only because the film wraps up a hugely complex and precarious situation in an unbelievably tidy manner. The overly simplistic conclusion makes the conflicts feel minute in scale, despite their essentiality to the story.

Nevertheless, Your Sister’s Sister is a solid movie, featuring a trio of excellent performances and dynamic character relationships that ring true in every scene. Above anything else, the film is about sibling love and forgiveness, even when that sibling has done something unforgivable. For the most part, it succeeds both narratively and emotionally in what it sets out to do (despite a silly and heavy handed end speech), but Your Sister’s Sister never rises above that humdrum feeling its premise elicits.

Your Sister’s Sister receives 3.5/5


Jeff, Who Lives at Home

In one way or another, all movies are about destiny. The journey a character takes from a film’s opening moments all the way to its conclusion can easily be defined as such, yet critics and filmgoers still criticize those films for their contrivances and happenstances. Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens with a quote, directly telling the audience that the film they’re about to see is about fate, which will give certain critics a reason to look past the film’s contrived situations, but expressly stated or not, contrivances are contrivances and Jeff, Who Lives at Home is full of them.

Jeff (Jason Segel) still lives at home with his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). He’s 30 years old and nobody understands him. One day, he gets a call from a wrong number looking for a man named Kevin. Jeff sees this as a sign to look for someone named Kevin because, who knows, that person might just need his help. On a trip to the supermarket that same day, he spots on a man wearing a basketball jersey with the name “Kevin” etched on its back, so he follows him only to be robbed, beaten up and wandering the street where a whole mess of contrived situations lead him to what he thought he was looking for.

If I went through every single one of those aforementioned contrivances in an attempt to defend my stance on the film, I’d be giving away the entire story beat by beat because they continue on, quite literally, until the very last scene where characters who hadn’t seen each other the entire film just happen to intersect at a crucial point in time, so instead let me just give a few early examples. After taking a beating from the kid wearing the basketball jersey, Jeff takes a stroll down the road, the very same one that his brother, Pat (Ed Helms), just happens to be having lunch on (and only spots him because he leaves his table to take a conveniently timed call from his mother). Pat offers to give Jeff a ride home, but after some reckless driving, he slams into a tree, only for the two to spot Pat’s wife, Linda (Judy Greer), across the street at a gas station with another man (both of whom are oblivious to the fact that a sports car at top speed just slammed loudly and violently into a tree).

Jeff and Pat then decide to tail Linda and the mystery man, but eventually lose track of them, so they part ways after an argument. Pat hails a cab and out of all the streets in the entire city it could have driven down, it drives down the one with a Hampton Inn on it and where Linda’s car is parked. Meanwhile, Jeff has hitched a ride on a snack food truck because the company name just so happened to have the name “Kevin” in it. Guess where the truck’s next delivery is? You guessed it. The Hampton Inn. What happens after this point is too story sensitive to discuss due to potential spoilers, but you can be sure moments like those previously mentioned continue to occur, bringing about what can only be described as a mega-contrivance.

Frankly, it’s tiring. This movie is either too stupid to realize the opening quote doesn’t negate its contrivances or it’s so smart it realizes putting that quote there will fool people into thinking it’s something more than what it is. If it’s the latter, it’s a clever ruse, but something tells me the Duplass brothers, the directors behind this and other so called mumblecore films Cyrus and Baghead, aren’t smart enough to pull such a sham, given that they still haven’t even realized how to operate a camera. Like their previous films, Jeff, Who Lives at Home still looks (perhaps intentionally) like an amateur home video, complete with poor framing, little headroom (if any) and misplaced zooms both in and out.

An uninteresting side story involving Sharon’s secret admirer co-worker is just another drop in the fail bucket when stacked up alongside the film’s bigger problems, but it’s not all terrible. A few of the jokes are laugh out loud funny and the lead is quite likable. He’s a bit of a slouch and spends more time smoking weed than looking for jobs, but he genuinely cares about people, as evidenced by a number of scenes, including one where he helps an old lady cross the street. Segel’s sympathetic portrayal of a character that could have easily come off as little more than a loser carries Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but without strong supporting content to aid him, it’s still difficult to care.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home receives 1.5/5