Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, CA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

In 1997, this ad actually appeared among Backwoods Homes‘s classifieds. It went viral online, appeared on Jay Leno, turned up as a t, and eventually inspired this indie hit, released in 2012.

Title: Safety Not Guaranteed

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Colin Treverrow
Written by Derek Connolly

Cast

Aubrey Plaza as Darius
Mark Duplass as Kenneth Calloway
Jake Johnson as Jeff
Karan Soni as Arnau
Kristen Bell as Belinda
Mary Lynn Rajskub as Bridget

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.

Rent or download from Amazon.
Also available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Premise:

A cynical, middle-aged reporter and two interns investigate the story behind a curious advertisement. Time travel clearly works as a metaphor here—but has the disturbed man who placed the ad developed an actual time machine? And who are the mysterious men following him?

High Points:

The film uses time travel as a metaphor without (for the most part) becoming ponderous. Jeff only takes the story because he wants to revisit his past and his ex-girlfriend. Arnau the Intern, meanwhile, needs to learn that his present will become his past, and it might not be one he recalls fondly. Darius, our protagonist, relates better than any of them to the alleged time traveller; she wishes she could alter her own past. She recognizes his detachment from reality and inconsistencies in his story, but she wants to believe in him.

Relationships always involve insane leaps of faith.

Low Points:

Perhaps no ending would deliver the pay-off the premise promises, but I nevertheless felt disappointed. Apart from removing much of the ambiguity that is central to film’s tone, it pushed the film into an uncomfortable wish-fulfillment for socially isolated nerds.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 We’re in Indie Film territory, but the premise, though derived from real life, gets developed with unusual twists of its own.

Effects: 4/6 The effects are brief, simple, and effective, while Kenneth’s creations have a perfect, crazy visual style.

Production: 5/6 The film achieves much on a limited budget.

Acting: 5/6 Aubrey Plaza plays Darius in that amusing, indie-film sort of way, but she makes the character work. Overall the performances carry the movie.

Story: 5/6 The script features excellent, often terrifically amusing dialogue, and an off-kilter quirkiness that makes you wonder whether Kenneth is a mad genius or just plain mad. Safety Not Guaranteed also features a hilarious comic heist scene.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Overall: 5/6. Anyone who has lived for any length of time shares Kenneth’s dreams, at least a little bit.

In total, Safety Not Guaranteed receives 32/42.

Lingering Questions (With Spoilers)

Most obviously, do they actually go back in time? And do they arrive alongside their past selves, or is this some kind of Peggy Sue Got Married situation where they find themselves in their old bodies? And then what?

Also, we’re led to conclude the woman who inspired Kenneth to make the trip is telling the real version of events. But could his story be closer to what happened the first time around, before he went back and took desperate measures that drove her entirely away from him but prevented her death? (Okay, I doubt it, but that interpretation makes Kenneth look less creepy and less crazy).

Note

The author of the original ad, John Silviera, worked for the magazine, filling gaps in the classified sections with riddles and gags. In the fateful issue, back in the ’90s, he had nothing ready, so he placed two ads of his own. One was an actual personal; he wasn’t dating anyone, and he thought he might as well try the classifieds. The other ad, intended as a joke, drew most of the responses– thousands in a very short time.

Silviera writes:

…many letters came from people who wanted me to correct a past tragedy. Dozens, in prison, asked me to go back in time and talk them out of committing the crime that put them away. Others (and not a few) were from people who begged me to go back and save a loved one from a tragic death. Those letters were so heartbreaking I almost couldn’t read them and I felt a certain amount of shame for not anticipating the false hope I placed in so many hearts.

He has kept the post office box. He’s still receiving letters.