Back in 1997 a guy named John Silveira was working for Backwoods Home magazine when late in the production of one issue the editor asked him to come up with a joke or two to fill up a bit of blank space on a page of classified ads. Silveira asked if he might just place a couple of ads, and the editor said fine.
One was on the level, a personals ad seeking a woman. He got very few responses, one of them from a guy. But the other ad was eye-catching enough to be featured on Jay Leno’s “Headlines” segment and be propagated all over the web. Letters in response are still coming to his post office box. He’d originally written the ad to serve as the opening of a science fiction novel he’d tried to write years ago and never finished, reading
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.
In the movie a slightly altered version of the ad appears in a local newspaper in a small town on the Washington coast, and a writer at Seattle magazine convinces his editor that tracking down whoever placed it would make for an entertaining feature story.
Actually he has an ulterior motive: He wants to look up a girl he dated there one summer many years before. So while he’s looking for her, he turns over the job of finding the guy who placed the ad to a couple of the magazine’s interns he’s brought along, one an undergraduate biology major from India looking for something to add to his grad school application, and the other—the film’s protagonist— a chronically unhappy and socially isolated young woman played by Aubrey Plaza, whom you might know as April on Parks and Recreation. (She’s also a stand-up comic.)
She and the other intern adopt the obvious tactic of camping out across the street from the post office to see who takes mail out of the box in question. There’s a moment’s excitement when an older guy seems about to open the box but opens one next to it instead. That older guy is played by John Silveira, the real-world author of the ad. (He’s also in the credits as a time-travel consultant.)
Eventually a man in his 30s (Mark Duplass, who was originally going to be just the film’s producer, proves to be the guy they’ve been waiting for, so the female intern follows him and discovers he’s just an eccentric loner who works in a grocery store and likes to discuss conspiracy theories. They report back to the writer, who tries to approach the guy and gets nowhere. So he has Aubrey Plaza try to win his confidence as someone answering his ad, figuring the guy will be more intrigued by an attractive young woman. And in fact she manages to make herself interesting enough that Duplass decides she’s a candidate for the job. Still cautious, he wants to test her first before he says too much. In the course of the testing and training he puts her through, he starts to trust her more and more and she finds herself liking him and opening up to him in spite of his apparent craziness. She’s touched that he wants to go back in time only to save the life of someone he deeply cared about. When he asks why she wants to time-travel, she tells him honestly that she misses her late mother.
Everybody turns out to be more complicated and interesting than they first appear. There’s a fair amount of understated comedy and a reasonable amount of mystery, suspense, and drama, all building to a decent ending. I recommend it, and most reviewers appear to have liked it better than I did. It’s won various awards, including one for “overlooked film of the year.”