In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Steve Carell plays Dodge (note the name), a man who has gone through life as an emotionally-stunted cynic – which makes the announcement that the world is literally coming to end (due to an oncoming asteroid) quite an inconvenient event. Before Dodge can even process the doomsday proclamation, his wife Linda (played by Carell’s real-life wife, Nancy) runs off to spend her last days with the man she actually loves.
Left alone, heartbroken, and existentially vacant, Dodge fears that his own last days will be as much a waste as the rest of his life apparently was. Fate intervenes when downstairs neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) appears on Dodge’s fire escape in tears, lamenting her most recent breakup and the fact that she will also meet her end alone, so far away from her family back in England. With anarchy and rioting headed their way, Dodge and Penny make a pact: Penny will drive Dodge to see his unrequited true love one last time, and Dodge will hook Penny up with a pilot to fly her home.
But, as always, the journey to a desired destination veers into some unexpected (but possibly greater) detours of the heart and soul.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the directorial debut of Lorene Scafaria, who is best known for writing the snappily-hip script for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (she also wrote the script for this film). As a first-timer, Scafaria shows a promising hand for scene composition and visual storytelling, while her script is enlivened by some interesting, insightful, and often amusing visions of what the world would truly look like, if the end were indeed nigh. Those hoping for any kind of sci-fi influence, don’t. The apocalyptic premise is just that – a premise – while the main story is totally in the vein of an indie rom-com.
Scene-for-scene, Seeking a Friend offers episodic stops along the journey that tend to please with much greater frequency than they disappoint. Some highlights are a mock T.G.I. Fridays that has become of macabre den of drug-fueled happiness; parties where the only rule is unbridled hedonism; or abandoned places where once-important things now sit forgotten. Aside from some interesting set-pieces, the people Penny and Dodge encounter on their way (opportunities for some hilarious celebrity cameos) encompass a range of personalities that provide fun insight into how various people would cope with the end of the world. From the hedonists, to the indifferent – from militant bomb shelter squatters to the recklessly desperate - arguably the film’s most engaging aspect is the sketch it provides of a world (and people) rapidly slipping into the shadow of death, and just trying to deal with that fact.
That Scafaria is able to handle such serious subject matter in such a lighthearted, witty kind of way is admirable: Even in the heavier parts of the film, emotion and drama is conveyed in carefully measured fashion – mostly by Carell, who pretty much carries the emotional core of the story on his shoulders. Knightley, on the other hand, plays such a quirky and free-spirited eccentric that even when the tears roll from her eyes, it’s hard to feel much emotional impact (the story quickly establishes Penny as the type to go from laughing to crying and back to laughing in the span of mere minutes, so dramatics are simply part of her personality matrix).
The lump-in-your-throat moments later in the film may fall flat for a lot of viewers, as it must be admitted that Dodge (and to lesser extent, Penny) are not the best-sketched main characters to ever appear on film. Carell and Knightley are an odd coupling (as are Dodge and Penny), and even when they strike up a strong chemistry, there is still the sense that something is off about the notion of this couple (inevitably) falling for one another – especially in such extreme circumstances. That is to say: the notion that Dodge and Penny would be one another’s end of the world choice for a soulmate never really comes off as believable.
Another issue is the fact that neither protagonist is ever presented as someone you want to “root for,” thereby making their romantic arch an exercise in simple observation rather than emotional investment. Dodge is dreary and detached from just about everything around him, while Penny is naive, flighty, and kind of all over the place in terms of what sort of person she is. Knightley jumps in with both feet and certainly demonstrates more personality than her usual rigid, period piece persona; but again, in terms of the writing, her character is a bit underserved by Scafaria’s script. Never a good thing when your main characters aren’t the most interesting things in the film.
Overall, only ardent fans of Carell, Knightley or Scafaria’s brand of refreshingly sharp wit and insight need go out and seek this film in theaters; it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you sought it out on the home video circuit. For those looking for counter-programming to the summer blockbuster season: this would be an enjoyable (if not spectacular) selection.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is now playing in theaters.