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.

i. The Meme

In 1997, this ad actually appeared among Backwoods Homes's classifieds. It went viral online, appeared on Jay Leno, turned up as a t-shirt, and was reproduced with variants, at times attached to the image of some guy with a mullet.

The author of the 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.

More than a decade later, the ad inspired an indie hit, released in 2012.

ii. The Motion Picture

Directed by Colin Treverrow
Written by Derek Connolly

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

A cynical, middle-aged reporter and two interns investigate the story behind a curious advertisement. The reporter, Jeff, jumps on the story because it involves a visit to his home town, and the unforgotten ex with whom he wants to renew contact. Arnau, 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. Time travel clearly works as a metaphor hereā€”but has Kenneth, the disturbed man who placed the ad, actually developed a time machine? And who are the mysterious men following him?

Darius becomes entangled with her subject's life. She recognizes his detachment from reality, but she believes there may be more to his story. Even his alleged reason for building the machine makes him a sympathetic character. He wants to save the life of his girlfriend, killed in an accident in 2001. Jeff, when not making hip quips, romancing his old girlfriend, or encouraging Arnau to engage in potentially dangerous activity, uncovers a different version of Ken's story. Darius has doubts but, then, relationships always involve insane leaps of faith.

The actors give strong performances. Aubrey Plaza plays Darius in that amusing, indie film sort of way, but she makes the character work. Jeff's world-weariness, at least partially affected, often proves hilarious. This story has far more to do with people and longing than time travel.

The script features excellent, often terrifically amusing dialogue, and an off-kilter quirkiness that keeps you wondering whether Kenneth is a mad genius or just plain mad. A scene where he and Darius steal components he deems necessary for his machine ranks among the most memorable comic heists in film history. Unfortunately, Safety Not Guaranteed does not sustain its energy to the conclusion.

Minor Spoilers

I won't be giving too much away, but you will see spoilers if you keep reading.

Just so you know.

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.

Others, however, enjoy the conclusion, perhaps for that very reason. Many people, at one point or another, have felt an attachment or affection for a Kenneth. Others actually are or were Kenneths. And anyone who has lived for any length of time shares some of the man's dreams. These facts serve as saving grace when this mostly-impressive movie falters.

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