by Julian Spivey
There are those performances in films that are so moving and beautifully acted they stick in your mind for hours and even days after viewing a film. The majority of the time the performance is from the main character or one of the main characters in a film. However, every now and then you get a supporting performance that’s so amazing and so lifelike that it almost kind of overshadows everything else, even if that film is one of the year’s best.
Earlier this year I wanted to see this little indie flick called “Safety Not Guaranteed”, but didn’t have the opportunity, because small films like this rarely-if-ever come to the theatre in Conway, Ark. Now out on DVD on Sunday, I went to a local Redbox and picked it up.
In this film a relative newcomer, Jake Johnson, has one of those scene and movie stealing performances as Jeff, a writer for Seattle magazine, who pitches an idea to his editor about this unique ad from a local newspaper which reads: “WANTED: Someone 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.” If you’ve seen the movie or plan on seeing the movie (you should it’s one of the best of 2012) you’ll come to understand that this ad had a double meaning from the start.
Jeff knows this ad will make for an interesting story, but it’s not really his main focus for heading to Ocean View, Wash., where this mystery man who claims he can time travel, Kenneth (played nicely in a super serious way by Mark Duplass), lives. It doesn’t take us too long to find out that Jeff really has an ulterior motive. He wants to reunite with a lost love from high school. He wants to recapture a feeling he no longer has and a moment in time he longs to embrace again. Jeff brings along two of the magazine’s interns, Darius (played by Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (played by Karan Soni), along for the trip to help him out.
Jeff pretty early on in the going pawns the bulk of the story onto Darius, because she’s made a connection with Kenneth. The bulk of the movie, in fact, relies on this storyline and unique chemistry between Plaza and Duplass’ characters and a half-observant film viewer might even think they are what the story is really all about.
The movie, written by Derek Connolly and directed by Colin Trevorrow, brilliantly makes every single one of its lead characters sympathetic. You feel sympathy as a viewer for Darius and Kenneth almost immediately upon their entrances onto the screen, but it takes a little longer for Jeff. This really is part of the brilliance of the character as written by Connolly and as portrayed by Johnson. What you see from Jeff in the beginning of the movie is that he’s a grade A douchebag. What you end the movie seeing about him is that he’s a man in pain; he’s a man in need. The douchery he exhibits is just his way of coping with life, one that’s disappointed him for years and somewhere along the way left him behind.
When Jeff finally reintroduces himself to Liz (played by Jenica Bergere) you start to see that she isn’t just a figure of lust for him (something he bluffs about at first), but really is the thing he’s needed in his life to turn things around for him. You feel like everything’s going to be OK for Jeff, and Johnson portrays these scenes with great warmth and genuine affection. However, Jeff’s midlife crisis of sorts doesn’t end here. In a beautifully sad scene, where Jeff is trying to get his virginal buddy Arnau laid, you can see the anguish in his eyes in the incredibly superb image of Jeff at a go-kart track driving around with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. It's one of the best movie images of the year, if you ask me. It won’t be on the same grand scale as an intoxicated James Dean lying on the ground playing with a wind-up toy monkey from “Rebel Without a Cause”, but the same feeling flourishes. It’s a split-second moment that says everything about both the character of Jeff and the talented acting skills of Johnson. This is followed up by a nice moment where Jeff persuades Arnau to go for it and live a little because you’re only going to be young once.
Plaza’s role is the one that seems to be the most critically adored based on the reviews I’ve read of the film, and rightfully so, but it’s Johnson’s performance and character that continues to stick with me. Admittedly, it’s probably because I can identify with it in many ways. I may not have exactly the same issues as his character does, but I often feel the desperation he feels of time slipping by and longing for a grand moment in the past (or future) that may never reoccur (or occur). I like the anguish his character exudes, because I’ve felt it. I know the accuracy rings true.
Huffington Post writer Christopher Rosen compared Johnson’s performance here as Jeff to “the type of meaty supporting role you might expect to see Bill Murray inhabit in a Wes Anderson movie” in his article: “SXSW 2012: Jake Johnson, 'Safety Not Guaranteed' Star, Is Ready To Break Out” earlier this year. I find Rosen’s analogy to be a perfect fit for what Johnson has accomplished in “Safety Not Guaranteed”. Murray has garnered much critical acclaim in these types of roles for Anderson (including his perfect appearance in “Moonrise Kingdom” earlier this year). Maybe Johnson can find the same kind of love for playing quirky, messed up personalities of the like.
The only previous work I’ve seen of Johnson’s is his role as Nick Miller on the Fox sitcom “New Girl”, which though not as serious, has some similarities with Jeff. I’ve said many times that Nick Miller is the closest character currently on television to me, which may not be such a great thing, but, oh well, I love him. In both roles Johnson has these little idiosyncrasies that make his characters among the most lifelike and realistic that I’ve seen in years. It remains to be seen on a larger scale, but I suspect we may have found one of our generation’s most talented seriocomic thespians. After all, who doesn’t love a truly funny fuckup?