In 1997, magazine writer John Silveira was working for Backwoods Home Magazine when his publisher, Dave Duffy, asked him to tell a joke. Apparently, the magazine was short on material for the classified ad sections, and Duffy was chill enough to let writers slip in some funnies.
“John, give me a couple of jokes,” Silveira recalled Duffy telling him in 2010. So Silveira did as he was told, and came up with a gag about a time machine. He recycled the opening lines to an unfinished novel, which read as follows:
“WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322 Oakview, CA 93022. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
It was a joke. In the early days of the internet, this ad managed to go viral before that was a real term. It was read aloud by Jay Leno on TV and discussed on NPR’s Car Talk. Years later, screenwriter Derek Connolly came across the ad, believing it to be real — or, rather, to be sincere. “There was something really sad about it all,” said Connolly, who was inspired. “What if he is really lamenting something from his past that he wants to go back and fix. That’s what drew my attention.”
After contacting Silveira, Connolly wrote the screenplay for what would become the 2012 sci-fi indie hit Safety Not Guaranteed, which is leaving Netflix on August 14 and is worthy of your time before then.
Remembered as the movie that put Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow on the map, Safety Not Guaranteed also happens to be a picture-perfect example of a dying breed: that of high-concept genre movies with twee sensibilities.
In Safety Not Guaranteed, Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) is a depressed twenty-something working as an unpaid magazine intern for Seattle Magazine. Like a lot of young adults in the years after the financial crisis, Darius is stuck at home and struggling to find direction.
During a pitch meeting, scummy reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson, committing to a more competent variation of his Nick Miller from New Girl) pitches a story about an amusing classified ad — one that reads just like the one from 1997 — in Ocean View, Washington, a podunk beach town. With the pitch approved, Jeff recruits Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni), a studious and virginal science major, to come with him. Jeff has ulterior motives, but the story still moves forward, with Darius posing as an interested party to the ad’s writer, supermarket employee Kenneth Calloway (indie royalty Mark Duplass).
What then unfolds would appear to be a rudimentary romantic comedy, if not for the time travel stuff and the eccentricities of leads Plaza and Duplass, each playing up themselves as authentic outsiders to Hollywood’s plastic molds. Filmed during Plaza’s stint on Parks and Recreation, Darius is less morbid than April Ludgate, though I imagine the two would get along well debating Bloc Party albums. Duplass’ Kenneth, meanwhile, looks like a dumpier John Krasinski, with disheveled brown locks and a tight denim jacket who drives around in a beat-up yellow Datsun.
Seen through the eyes of anyone other than Darius, Kenneth is a loser. When his old crush (Kristen Bell, in a surprise supporting role) emerges to describe him as “one of those guys who you kind of know has a crush on you but he’s really nice and so you’re really nice back” and “the type of guy who you couldn’t easily fit into your life,” you either feel sorry for Kenneth or you agree with her (or both).
Darius, who doesn’t fit anywhere, falls for Kenneth; it’s little wonder that she’s head over heels when Kenneth sings an original song about stepping out of life’s normal rhythms. Surprising, the tension of her trying to get a story out of Kenneth never feels as severe as you think it probably should. As the two develop a relationship over Kenneth’s “training” program (including a heist at a science lab that still elicits laughter from the gut), it’s never that Darius is lying to Kenneth, but rather how Kenneth might be lying to Darius, that creates the biggest sizzle in the story’s stakes.
A subplot for the film lies in Jeff, a radiant source of cologne, booze, and Alka Seltzer, who initially wants only One Thing: To sleep with an old hottie, Liz (Jenica Bergere) from his high school days. At first glance, Jeff loses interest upon learning Liz is not the preserved 18-year-old siren still alive in his memory. But encouraged by Arnau — who is later encouraged by Jeff to seize the day in his own way — Jeff revives a fling, only to realize the size of the void in his own life.
Safety Not Guaranteed ends with victories for many of its characters, timid Arnau included, but Jeff ends on a downer. Tears run down his cheeks as he drives drunk on a go-kart, a lit cigarette wedged between fingers. Even when Darius and Kenneth (minor spoilers) successfully get away and Jeff raises his fist in cheer, there’s still nothing left for Jeff to do. Unlike the other characters surrounding him, he’s lost his chance. He’s got nothing. The sun has set.
When Safety Not Guaranteed premiered in 2012, critics loved it, though many commented on the film’s twee elements, which feel ripped from the mid-2000s. In her review, critic Meredith Borders remarked the film can come across as dated. “We were all blissfully free of the Garden State phenomenon,” she wrote, “only to have director Colin Trevorrow yank us back in.”
They’re not wrong. Safety Not Guaranteed has precisely that familiar flavor belonging to movies like the aforementioned Garden State, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and especially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that still-great Michel Gondry picture preceding Safety Not Guaranteed as the premier hybrid rom-com sci-fi. When awkward Arnau tries to tell Darius that she’d look good in tight leggings that girls wear, she brushes him off, in what feels like a light jab to the Zooey Deschanels of the world. (Notice Darius later wearing those leggings at the film’s climax.)
In its defense, Safety wasn’t the only movie working in this twee vein all those years ago. 2012 also saw the release of Ruby Sparks, in which Paul Dano literally writes the girl of his dreams into life, and the following year saw About Time, in which Domnhall Gleeson learns he’s capable of time travel and uses that power to romance Rachel McAdams. Movies of this caliber are a dying breed, however; last year’s similarly retro-styled Psycho Goreman remains a little-seen gem, everything original gets dumped on streamers, and the pandemic box office has made it appear that only comic-book movies make money these days.
What’s compelling about the so-called tweeness of Safety, though, is that it is the work of Trevorrow, a filmmaker who then soared from the indie world to franchise filmmaking at a dizzying speed. Three short years later, Trevorrow was at the helm of Jurassic World, and by the end of the year, he was slated to direct Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. (In the aftermath of Trevorrow’s exit, the abundance of verbal Star Wars references in Safety Not Guaranteed has to sting.)
It would have been fascinating to see Trevorrow stretch his legs further in the indie world before getting rocketed into the stratosphere of mega-budget films. In 2017, Trevorrow returned to non-IP filmmaking with the critically panned drama The Book of Henry, a movie I still haven’t seen but have had described to me in such great detail that I refuse to believe is a real movie. (After I file this story I’m watching it on Netflix, where it’s also streaming. I’m committed now.)
Safety Not Guaranteed still exists as a promising start for a storyteller with a keen investment in universal human emotions, one that feels real in spite of whatever time-travel shenanigans may or may not be unfolding off-screen. That is perfect for, well, Star Wars. But I often wonder what else we could received from Trevorrow had he not been so successful out of the gate. If only we could travel back in time, you know?
Safety Not Guaranteed is now streaming on Netflix until August 14.