The Double Feature: Midnight in Paris and Safety Not Guaranteed
I think we can all agree that as a concept, time travel is cool. The Butterfly Effect issue aside, the possibility of experiencing the past first hand is tantalizing. It’s no wonder then that time travel narratives make for good films. They allow us to live out our dreams of escaping our modern lives or righting our past wrongs.
Time travel films come in all shapes and sizes, from spirited romps like Back to the Future to headache-inducing, pretzel shaped yarns like Primer, but the ones I’ve always found the most effective are the ones that are motivated by nostalgia. The yearning for a bygone era, for childhood, for something, anything, that has past. Midnight in Paris and Safety Not Guaranteed are two recent time travel films that derive their power from nostalgia, although they approach it in different ways. Midnight in Paris is explicit in the theme, its hero yearns for 1920s Paris as if his very happiness depends on getting there, whereas Safety Not Guaranteed taps into the viewers’ nostalgia for a time when they were still young enough to believe in things like time travel and happy endings. Despite their different approaches and vastly different styles, these two films possess a similar sensibility that makes them perfect for a time travel double feature.
Nostalgia is one of Woody Allen’s favorite subjects. He spotlighted the theme in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days, but there are touches of it in almost all of his films. It’s nearly impossible to watch any Allen film and not experience some sense of yearning for days gone by, there is just something about his style that lends itself to the emotion. It’s not surprising then that he would return to that well for 2011’s Midnight in Paris. The film’s hero is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a man suffering from writer’s block, who is so captivated by the idea of 1920s Paris that he cannot fully appreciate the present. The city itself seems to understand Gil’s yearning because it sends him a carriage full of artists and literary greats to escort him through Paris’s past.
If the film had settled for rewarding Gil’s nostalgia for a past he had never known, it still would have been mesmerizing, but it would have lacked the edge of realism that makes it great. In his advancing age, Allen is wise enough to realize the value in living in the now, and he imparts that wisdom to his protagonist. Gil gets to meet all of his heroes–Hemingway, Stein, Picasso–and he falls in love with a like-minded woman in Marion Cotillard’s Adriana (who is not satisfied with her current period either, and spends much of her time dreaming of the 1890s), but as the story unfolds he comes to realize everyone believes that there was some mythical time before that is better than the reality they are living in. The dissatisfaction that Gil feels is not a condemnation of the present, but rather a sadness for the choices he has made in his life–choices that he ultimately realizes can be fixed in the here and now.
Midnight in Paris is brimming with terrific performances (Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein is a standout) and gorgeous visuals, but it’s the pragmatic heart at the center of the film that makes it so special. Allen taps into the beauty and perils of living through daydreams, and delivers a film with a simple, but compelling message: we don’t need to wish for escape because we all possess the ability to transform our lives.
One quirky ad written by a man looking for a time traveling partner kicks off the action in 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed. From there the film follows a reporter, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), and his two interns Arnau (Karan Soni) and Darius (Aubrey Plaza), as they try to track down the author of the ad for a story. The author turns out to be Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a man who vacillates between childish innocence and unsettling paranoia. Although Kenneth’s mental state is questionable for much of the film, that doesn’t stop Darius from forming a strong bond with him, and it’s their budding relationship that drives the story.
Safety Not Guaranteed is very much of its time. Darius is an underemployed, post-grad, who manages to be jaded and childlike all at once. The loss of her mother has left her vaguely depressed and afraid of truly living her life. Kenneth, despite all of the worrisome aspects of his personality, is capable of tapping into her playfulness and her sense of wonder. He is the eccentric guy who comes into her life and convinces her it’s worth living, making him sort of the male equivalent of the manic pixie dream girl.
While most of the film is devoted to realism, all roads eventually lead back to time travel. Kenneth and Darius are actively prepping for a journey into their personal pasts, ostensibly to right mistakes that resulted in the loss of Kenneth’s girlfriend and Darius’s mother. They both feel that if they could only return to those moments and change them, that their lives would course correct. Jeff experiences a similar longing to return to the past, but he takes a practical–and disheartening–approach by reconnecting with an old summer love. All of the characters are afraid to fully embrace the present, either because the past has left them damaged or, as in Jeff’s case, the past is more appealing than the harsh truth that they’re getting older and their lives aren’t what they want them to be. For the characters in Safety Not Guaranteed the possibility of time travel provides a sense of hope. If they can change their pasts, then maybe they can find a way to create their futures.
Safety Not Guaranteed is Midnight in Paris‘s grungy little brother. It is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s not afraid to embrace the fantastic. The film speaks directly to millennials grappling with adulthood and seems to say, “it’s going to be okay, kid.” That optimism is welcome, if a bit naive taken on its own. That’s where Midnight in Paris comes in.
The Peter Pan-like wonder of Safety Not Guaranteed, is begging to be followed up with the polished vision of adulthood that Allen presents in Midnight in Paris. Gil’s awakening to the fact that he can find happiness and inspiration in the present compliments Darius’s journey beautifully. They both end up in a similar place by the end of their stories, but the maturity in Gil’s epiphany can only come from a filmmaker who has been around as long as Allen has. That’s not to say there’s no value in Safety Not Guaranteed‘s message though. For me, the films are at their best when taken together; that way you get two unconventional and philosophical time travel films for the price of one, and two moving, insightful takes on the messy business of growing older.
Do you think Midnight in Paris and Safety Not Guaranteed are well suited each other? Sound off below!
Follow me on Twitter @sljbowman