In the mid-2000s, this classified ad exploded across the internet, creating yet another meme for the pile with the lolcats and Trollface. Of course, the ad IS in fact a joke, written not by this world’s Dr. Emmett Brown, but by the buddy of the editor of Backwoods Home Magazine. The surprising thing is, a lot of people believed it. The ad’s original creator, John Silveira, has received thousands of responses ranging from people boasting of their martial arts prowess, to people overjoyed at the thought of adventuring through time, to people in prison wanting to undo their crimes, to people who simply want to save loved ones from death. It’s a ludicrous yet touching story.
So it only follows that Safety Not Guaranteed is a ludicrous and touching movie. Honestly, it’s hard to believe a fake classified ad in an obscure magazine that turned into an internet phenomenon would become the basis for a film, so there’s some points for ludicrous right off the bat.
Safety Not Guaranteed stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius, who at first is pretty much like every other character Aubrey Plaza has ever played. Aloof, distant, sarcastic, cynical, and troubled. I mean, take a moment to try and imagine Aubrey skipping through a meadow in a cute polka-dot dress singing “I’m Walking on Sunshine.” It’s virtually impossible.
Anyway, Darius works at a Seattle magazine as an intern but pretty much gets treated like shit in a comically-overblown way. She finally gets a “break” when one of the writers, Jeff Schwensen (played brilliantly by New Girl’s Jake M. Johnson) pitches the infamous classified ad as a potential story and picks Darius and another awkward intern, Arnau (Karan Soni) to help him track down the author. The unlikely trio set out for Ocean View, WA (a change from the original ad’s Oakview, CA) to investigate.
Darius seems more interested and invested in the story than either of her cohorts, and is able to very quickly track down not only the author, but his place of employment at a supermarket. But when she returns with the information, she finds out that the womanizing Jeff only suggested this trip so he could try and hook up with an old high school flame. In essence, both of them are trying to time-travel in their own weird ways.
So it’s up to Darius to reel in the odd-duck that started this whole mess, Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a man who is that sort of seemingly-good-natured weird that still gives you the heeby-jeebies. Kenneth never swears, instead using words like “flippin” and “a-hole” when he’s agitated, and his whole demeanor smacks of a man whose personality was stunted somewhere in his pre-teens. So while it’s predictable that the hard-hearted Darius would fall for him, it’s not really believable. Fortunately, this relationship is given the most possible time to develop, from Kenneth merely determining if he can trust her at first, all the way to genuine admiration and affection. And although the entirety of the film is centered around whether or not this man is a lunatic, you still can’t help but root for him.
Jeff’s arc, on the other hand, is far from inspirational. He does actually track down his ex, only to discover that time “shit all over her face.” But despite his cruel private comments, he meets up with her. As an aside, it’s hard to imagine that the actress who played his ex, Jenica Bergere (right), seen as anything but lovely. Jeff’s initial reaction is incredibly off-putting, but does have a ring of authenticity. Built up in his mind as this eternally 18-year-old princess, she’d have been hard-pressed to do anything but disappoint him. Much to everyone’s surprise – no one more than Jeff – the two hit it off.
Despite the film’s seemingly-lofty premise of time travel, it really is a simple movie about relationships and characters. And the performances of Plaza, Johnson, and Duplass really lift the whole thing up. Plaza’s eventual rise out of her typical character is very satisfying, and she delivers one of the funnier moments as she tries to intimidate or seduce (seducinate?) Kenneth in their first meeting. Johnson imbues the easily-hateable Jeff with just enough warmth to keep you from loathing him entirely. And Duplass plays the would-be time traveler to the absolute hilt, never really tipping his hand either way on the whole “Crazy or Not” question.
The only disappointment is Soni’s Arnau, who contributes very little to the movie aside from a few brief moments of comedy. This would have been fine if they hadn’t tried to shoehorn in some development for the character, which was very forced and said more about Jeff than it did about Arnau.
So it’s flawed, to be certain, but it is still a clever, absurd, hopeful film with a ton of heart. Make some time for it.