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‘Safety Not Guaranteed’: Comedies about real peopleBY: Judy Weightman 07.22.2012
It’s easy to laugh at two-dimensional stock characters. But the best comedies find ways to make us laugh at real three-dimensional people.
Safety Not Guaranteed. A film directed by Colin Trevorrow. For Philadelphia area show times, click here.
When is a comedy more than a comedy?JUDY WEIGHTMAN
Characters in comedies are often treated as stock figures— two-dimensional collections of quirks and stereotypes— rather than actual people with complex back-stories. In Mamma Mia, for example, a free-spirited ex-hippie (Meryl Streep) has to figure out which of three former beaus— a dashing architect, commitment-phobic explorer and an uptight British banker-- fathered her about-to-be-married daughter. In 27 Dresses, a serial bridesmaid who’s too nice for her own good and her manipulative sister are both attracted to the same handsome but oblivious guy. In The Proposal, a self-centered editor (Sandra Bullock) claims (for career purposes) to be engaged to her hapless nice-guy assistant Andrew.
Any seasoned moviegoer can pretty much predict where these films will wind up. Subtle characterization and its partner, empathy, are the province of drama, but the underlying dynamic of much comedy lies in maintaining distance between the characters and ourselves, to allow us to laugh at them.
Yet several young filmmakers are making movies that contain the basic ingredients of traditional romantic comedies— one or more heterosexual couples, misunderstandings or cross-purposes, a happy ending— but that, by exploring other relationships beyond the central romantic/sexual pairing, manage to portray something significantly more human, tender and interesting than a traditional love story.
Recent examples include Beginners (2010, written and directed by Mike Mills), which features Ewan McGregor as Oliver, who is simultaneously beginning a relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent) and dealing with the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). In addition to the relationship between Oliver and Anna, we visit, through flashbacks, the relationship between Oliver and Hal— especially the changes it underwent as they each came to terms with Hal’s coming out as gay at age 75, after the death of his wife.
Another example is Dan Fogelman’s script for Crazy, Stupid Love (2011), in which the central relationship concerns Cal (Steve Carell), a middle-aged man whose wife (Julianne Moore) wants a divorce, and Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who takes pity on Cal’s inept pick-up technique and becomes his mentor in womanizing. Both men encounter a variety of situations as they juggle the women they bed and those they pine after: for Cal, his wife, and for Jacob, Hannah (Emma Stone), a feisty young lawyer who’s impervious to his smooth lines.
Bring your own weapons
The latest entry in this boundary-stretching group, Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, begins with a shallow, reflexively cynical Seattle magazine reporter named Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), who notices a classified ad that reads: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” He wangles the assignment to cover the story and take along two interns: Darius, whom he dubs “the lesbian” (Aubrey Plaza), and “the Indian” Arnau (Karan Soni).
The intrepid trio sets off to find Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the loser who placed the ad, so they can write a story ridiculing him. At this point, we seasoned moviegoers know what to expect: Kenneth will be pathetic, Darius will be snarky, Jeff will be a jerk, and Arnau will be socially inept.
High school flame
But delightfully enough, both the magazine story and the movie’s plot evolve in unexpected directions, because the characters— like real people, though not necessarily like characters in comedies— have a variety of motivations for their actions.
Jeff, for instance, yearns to reconnect with his high-school flame, Liz (Jenica Bergere), who still lives in the small town where most of the action takes place, so Jeff ends up doing his own time traveling. Preoccupied with Liz, he lets the interns work on the story.
Things don’t necessarily work out for the characters the way they expect— or the way we expect, either— because each character is treated with a respectful tenderness that allows other elements to flavor their personalities. This approach is not only funny; it’s the way real life often works. Wouldn’t it be nice to see more comedies about real people?♦
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