"Safety Not Guaranteed" Uncovers The Man Behind the Ad

How do you turn a small Internet meme into an engaging full-length film? Create an interesting story around a character that casts himself from the real world and allow the audience to discover who he is along with the film’s protagonists. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a low-budgeted film directed by Colin Trevorrow and starring Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, and Mark Duplass.

The origin of the meme dates back to an ad placed in a 1997 issue of Backwoods Homes Magazine. Over time, a scanned picture of the ad made the rounds online through blog posts and social media. At one point, it was featured in the “Headlines” segment on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” When adapting the ad to film, the contact info is moved from Oakview, California to Ocean View, Washington. When you read the ad, it’s both comical and questionable. Is whoever wrote this serious? Is this a joke? Does someone actually have the capability to time travel and the scientific community just doesn’t know about it? Written by Derek Connolly, “Safety Not Guaranteed” attempts to uncover the man behind the ad with a fictional story of the journalists who seek him out and try to understand him.

The original 1997 ad
The original 1997 ad


Plaza plays Darius Britt, a young college graduate without any sense of direction. Her droll, unenthusiastic personality (which isn’t a far cry from her portrayal of April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation”) makes it difficult to personally connect with other people. She lives with her widowed father while working as an unpaid intern for Seattle Magazine. During a staff meeting, writer Jeff Schwensen (Johnson) pitches an idea for a story about a peculiar classified ad looking for a partner to embark on a comically worded mission:

"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."

Upon approval by his editor, Jeff selects interns Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni), a biology major who wants to diversify his internship experience. The three travel down to Ocean View, Washington, which is where the ad’s contact inquiry is addressed at a P.O. box, to profile the author of the ad. They stake out for the potential box owner and Darius discovers and quietly stalks the man behind the ad, Kenneth Calloway (Duplass), a stock clerk at a local grocery store. Once they find out his home address, Jeff approaches him and states his interest in going back in time but is kicked off the property by Kenneth for not being a worthy candidate. By sharing a similar sense of alienation and detachment from society, Darius is able to approach Kenneth and convince him she should be chosen to go back. Kenneth comes off as paranoid but confident and very serious about his mission by constantly training in his back yard and putting the finishing touches on his homemade time traveling vessel. I view Kenneth as a cross between Dwight Shrute (played by Rainn Wilson in the sitcom “The Office”), a square with a sense of survival and determination, and Dignan (Owen Wilson in the film “Bottle Rocket”), an adventurous amateur criminal who plans every move while escaping authority figures.

Darius begins experiencing a genuine fascination with Kenneth and continues to prove her worthiness to be his partner. His mission is to travel back to 2001 in order to prevent the death of an old girlfriend. Darius, while trying to hide the fact that she has been using him for a magazine article, tells Kenneth her reason for going back in time was to prevent the death of her mother in a car accident. Her very personal story about the last time she spoke to her mother shortly before her death marks the point in which Darius begins to see Kenneth as a real person and not someone to make fun of from afar. Meanwhile, Jeff ‘s ulterior motive to drive to the Ocean View area was to meet up with a long-lost high school fling. When he tracks her down, she is no longer the youthful image he’s stored in his mind all these years but the two end up reconnecting.

Darius assists Kenneth in a late-night raid at a laser technology plant to steal vital parts for his time machine. The two successfully make it out but spend the night in his car to avoid detection. As she spends more time with him, she starts developing feelings and wonders if his actual time machine (which she has not seen) will work. Later, two government agents approach Darius, Jeff and Arnau, asking of the whereabouts of Kenneth. For years, they had been following Kenneth and believe he may be a spy because of his online contact with government scientists. When Darius tells Kenneth they’re after him, he moves up the launch date. However, holes in Kenneth’s backstory begin to surface and Darius questions whether or not she can trust him.

What makes “Safety Not Guaranteed” a very likable and poignant film is its ability to create a character out of an Internet meme into a full-length story. Screenwriter Derek Connolly created a “man from behind the mask” tale about society’s outsiders and misunderstood. From an ad with only eight-sentences, Mark Duplass brings to life an odd outcast that slowly but surely brings you into his world. Chances are you’ve encountered someone like this in real life: consistently paranoid of government figures while trying to pursue the impossible, whether in uncovering deep conspiracies or proving that time travel is scientifically possible. But is Kenneth mentally unstable or a secret genius? He is not looking for fame but wants to alter the future in a timeline that did him wrong at one point. Over the course of the film, you start seeing Kenneth from Darius’s point of view while personally wondering (and hoping) that Kenneth can pull off his time traveling ability.

The film is engaging and funny at times, especially with Plaza's dry wit sarcasm and Duplass's portrayal of a unique figure looking for companionship. While Jeff comes off as an unprofessional journalist who selfishly brings along two interns to do his work while he pursues a romantic interest, he is ultimately redeemed when he helps out the socially shy Arnua to come out of his shell. Aubrey Plaza’s trademark on-screen personality may be off-putting at first, but it’s moments when her characters find comfort in their surroundings that she can actually smile so the audience can root for her happiness. The likability of these characters goes far when watching this time traveling mission unfold. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is an indie film with heart with a touch of adventure and science fiction.

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