Jan 8 2013 2:30pm

Skipping Ahead (and Back): Time Travel Romance Movies

Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio in Happy AccidentsLet’s say you met a really amazing man—sweet, intelligent, sensitive, and kind —and things are progressing really, really nicely. In fact, everything is perfect, with the exception of one small matter: He insists that he is, in fact, an accomplished time traveler. That would be tragic, wouldn’t it? Here you are, falling hard and fast, and he’s either the world’s most audacious liar or (the more likely scenario) clinically insane.

I mean, he couldn’t possibly be telling the truth, could he?

This is the conundrum faced by the heroines of two wonderful movies, Happy Accidents and Safety Not Guaranteed, which use time travel as a jumping-off point to explore deeper themes of belonging, acceptance, trust, commitment, and love. Both are available on DVD and via download, and both are well worth your time.

Happy AccidentsIn Happy Accidents (2000), Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei) is accustomed dating losers (her recent dating history is summed up in an amusing montage) and to being the “rescuer” in her romantic relationships. It’s a pattern she’d like to break, except maybe not really, so she greets most mornings by gazing into the mirror and earnestly reciting cheesy affirmations like “I am willing to find a balance between my own needs and my concern for others,” as prescribed by her dry-witted therapist (Holland Taylor).

Then she meets Sam Deed (a young and hot Vincent D’Onofrio), and love is very definitely in the air. “I feel like my entire life has been a journey into your arms,” he soulfully whispers. Ruby and thousands of female viewers swoon in unison. However, Sam is…not like other guys. On their first date, he arrives at her apartment with a record player and an armload of polka albums, confessing that he doesn’t understand how “courtship rituals” work in New York (where they live)—it’s different where he’s from, i.e., “Dubuque, on the Atlantic coast.” He has a barcode tattooed on his arm. He’s terrified of small dogs. He has strange “spells” in during which he freezes in place and stares blankly into space. And he compulsively sketches a strange but beautiful woman and writes her name, over and over again: Chrystie Delancey.

Ruby and Sam in Happy AccidentsIs Sam a (highly eccentric) cheating scumbag? He claims not: Upon being pressed for answers about this mysterious Chrystie person’s identity, he admits that he is, in fact, from the year 2470, and he scraped together the funds to travel to 1999 via a sort of temporal underground railroad specifically to meet Ruby, whose photo he ran across in a second-hand store.  His “spells” are actually Temporal Residual Drag Syndrome, a side effect of time travel. Once he gets going, he’s full of interesting details about life in the future (there is, in fact, a God…102 of them, in fact, discovered by a Jesuit priest using a “telepathy scope”), but the most alarming detail he shares is that Ruby is going to die, and very soon. And only Sam can save her…at least, he hopes he can.

Safety Not Guaranteed posterThe more recent Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) takes a slightly different approach. Twenty-something Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza), far from being a too-caring “fixer,” is apathetic to the point of catatonia. Even her father notes the dark cloud that seems to follow her around. She’s an intern for a glossy Seattle magazine, and when she’s offered the chance to get away for a few days she accepts it as listlessly as she does everything else, even though it sounds like quite an adventure: someone up the coast has placed a classified ad seeking a partner with whom to go back in time. “This is not a joke,” the ad warns. The senior writer, a flashy, shallow douchebag named Jeff (Jake Johnson), thinks that tracking this “time traveler” down would make an amusing human-interest story, so he, Darius, and another intern, geeky Arnau (Karan Soni), hit the road in his Escalade looking for a scoop.

The person who placed turns out to be a grocery clerk named Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), and to Darius’s surprise he’s earnest, thoughtful, and kind, and his intelligence, determination, and compassion threaten to break through the shell she has built around herself. Unfortunately, he’s also a paranoid loner who thinks nothing of committing whatever felonies may be necessary to achieve his goals, but then what’s a little armed robbery among friends, right? While these two lost souls grow closer, Jeff attempts to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend (Jenica Bergere), and his attempts to recapture his own youth provide a somewhat melancholy counterpoint to Darius and Kenneth’s activities.

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza as Kenneth and Darius in Safety Not GuaranteedIn both movies, the heroines need to decide whether to finally, truly open their hearts to men who are, on the face of things, very bad news indeed.  But I don’t think these films are implying that women should ignore their instincts, throw caution to the wind, and give our hearts unquestioningly to men who give every appearance of having, let us say, an uneasy relationship with the concept of honesty. I actually think they’re reaching for a deeper truth: That there are no guarantees, that love is always a risk, and that loving someone means accepting their foibles, just as they will accept yours. As Ruby’s wise mother (Tovah Feldshuh) says:

“You're so busy trying to fix the problem that you forget to enjoy the moments of happiness that you have. And your father and I, we had our moments. We loved our happiness. When we had it, we relished it. And that's what you must do. You must go to him... and you must tell him, honey. You tell him how you feel. And you enjoy each other for what you can give to each other now. Believe me, it won't last forever.”

Whether or not our intrepid time travelers are a couple of nuts or the real deal, I will leave you to discover for yourself. But I definitely encourage you to check these movies out, even if the very idea of time travel gives you an existential headache. (Both movies take place entirely in the present – well, Happy Accidents is set in 1999, which was “the present” at the time it was made.) In addition to being sweet and funny, they also have some fairly profound things to say on the nature of love. As Kenneth puts it:

“To go it alone or to go with a partner. When you choose a partner you have to have compromises and sacrifices, but it's a price you pay. Do I want to follow my every whim and desire as I make my way through time and space, absolutely. But at the end of the day do I need someone when I'm doubting myself and I'm insecure and my heart's failing me? Do I need someone who, when the heat gets hot, has my back?”

Spoiler: He does!


Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.

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1 comment
Rachel Hyland
1. RachelHyland
I defy anyone to watch Happy Accidents and not fall absolutely in love with Vincent D'Onofrio. He and Duplass both, they're not at all conventionally handsome, and are certainly not conventional romantic leads, but they are so strangely compelling that they carry off their parts far better than a more traditional casting choice could have. They have an indefinable quality, a kind of earnestly goofy charm coupled with a sense that they think deep, deep thoughts. It's irresistible.

Duplass is everywhere at the moment -- in Your Sister's Sister with Emily Blunt, in The Mindy Project wooing Ms. Kaling herself -- and continues to make himself more and more appealing, especially when he brings out the guitar and sings... shirtless.

Great post about two GREAT movies!
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