Have you ever been watching the latest Hollywood rom-com and wished a giant asteroid would just come crashing down, obliterating every doe-eyed, cuter-than-thou stereotype in a fiery cataclysm? Well, though that’s not exactly what happens in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, writer/director Lorene Scafaria does use the doomsday scenario as a jumping-off point for her feature debut.
At the film’s start, we learn that a last-ditch-effort space shuttle mission to destroy the asteroid has failed and the human race has three weeks of existence left. Steve Carell stars as Dodge, a quiet insurance broker whose wife just opens the car door and leaves on hearing the news that there will officially be no reprieve from the catastrophe. After his wife’s abrupt departure, Dodge mopes around, dragging himself to his mostly abandoned office (where now every day is casual Friday!), and to an increasingly bacchanalian party where his best friends (Rob Corddry and Connie Britton) try to hook him up with an acquaintance, fearing that otherwise he’ll face the end of days alone.
But Dodge is seemingly as much disaffected as everyone else is panicked and trying to live it up. Confronted with such a specific time frame until certain doom, he naturally has been taking stock of his choices, and of one in particular: how he managed to dodge happiness years ago by screwing up with the true love of his life. (Did I mention his name is Dodge?) In the increasing chaos, Dodge comforts his downstairs neighbor, played by Keira Knightley. She is, of course, quirky (her love of classic vinyl records feels as much the writer’s as the character’s own), beautiful, and shiny like a lucky penny. (Did I mention her name is Penny?) Penny tearily confesses to missing the last plane home to England ever, so she won’t get to be with her loving family. It also turns out she’s been hoarding Dodge’s mail whenever the postman put it in her box by mistake, including one very important letter from that selfsame lost love and cause of so much regret for Dodge. In it, his past flame writes that she’s now divorced and regretting ever letting him go. Dodge and Penny decide to pair up and hit the road, to track down his true love, and get her across the pond somehow before it’s too late.
Such a premise requires a delicate balance, and unfortunately Seeking a Friend for the End of the World undermines itself at almost every turn. There’s probably no more serious subject than the end of everything ever, but here it’s played for laughs … and not very big ones. As a result, the driving force behind the story feels flimsy, the tension is nullified, and we don’t feel the same sense of dread the characters do. Yet the relationship that predictably develops between Dodge and Penny is played pretty seriously. This serious thread is in turn undermined by the list of famous and semi-famous names who pop in periodically—like Rob Heubel, Patton Oswalt, Gillian Jacobs and William Petersen—who are occasionally amusing but only further help to underscore the unreality, the movie-ness, of the movie. A movie so divided tonally may be able to stand, but it’s not all that steady on its feet.
Fortunately for viewers, Carell and Knightley do work well together—their performances are a saving grace, and the culmination of their story is surprisingly sweet and moving. Or at least it seems so until one steps back and thinks about it: Dodge and Penny seem to have scant little time to realistically develop such strong feelings, so how is the viewer to believe they didn’t subconsciously manufacture their feelings for each other out of pure desperation in the face of, well, the end of the world? Isn’t this just a case of “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”? Doesn’t that cheapen the relationship? Or does it only matter that they’re together? Whatever the answers, such considerations are likely more analysis than the film intends or deserves.
Still there’s the germ of a good idea in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, though it gets paved over on the road of good intentions by a conventional script. What could have been a unique and interesting take on the genre turns out to be just a small movie about big problems that’s of middling entertainment value. It ends with neither bang nor whimper, but rather with the silent, creeping realization that you’re leaving the theater feeling exactly the same way you did coming in.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Writer: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Adam Brody, Derek Luke
Release Date: June 22, 2012