Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is touching and often quite funny, although its premise is bleak: an asteroid is headed toward Earth and there is nothing anyone can do about it, not even our hero, decent but downtrodden insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell) or his spritely British neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), who become roadtripping partners, and friends, in the last weeks of the world.
In the aftermath of 9/11, some movie critics, this one included, wondered whether the American appetite for epic disaster movies might be diminished. Having seen in terrible close-up what a big-scale, real-life tragedy on these shores looks like and been confronted with how hard it would have been to stop, maybe filmmakers wouldn’t be so inclined to make more movies where glib superstars such as Bruce Willis or Will Smith squash the terrorists, divert the asteroid or take on the aliens. Instead the action disasters barely skipped a beat and irony never died.
But a decade after 9/11, movies like writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World indicate a new comfort level with fatalism. Seeking is like the comic version of 2011’s Melancholia—in which filmmaker Lars Von Trier let the world end in a stunning explosion of fire and the crescendo of his Wagner score. It’s lighter and warmer, but still containing that willingness to embrace the doom of the human race. A spate of recent films with sci-fi premises, District 9, Monsters and Another Earth have also posed less than promising outcomes for earthlings. The cause probably has as much to do with the gloomy economic and environmental outlook as it does the long-term impact of seeing ourselves vulnerable and under attack, but either way, contemporary movies are exploring the end of the world as we know it.
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Seeking begins three weeks before a 70-mile wide asteroid named Matilda is due to collide with Earth. As soon as Matilda’s arrival is a certainty, Dodge’s wife (played by Carell’s real life wife Nancy) heads for the hills, with nary a goodbye. The year is 2021, or near to it, and astronauts have exhausted all the Armageddon-style possibilities of stopping the crisis. Cell phones have stopped working, fuel is scarce and commercial air travel is about to cease, presumably because of satellite interference. Scafaria, making her directorial debut, doesn’t over-explain in her screenplay. All the bad news is delivered in the kind of flat tone that lets you know it is futile. Later in the story there are a few continuity problems, and bits of logistical errors to niggle about, but as a mood setter the matter-of-a-factness of the exposition is an effective tactic; the sadness is understood and the focus remains with the characters as they reckon with their lives.
But as gloomy as all that would seem, Scafaria paints a very witty (and plausible) picture of what the end of days might look like in America. There’s some beauty and comfort, like a scene of people being blessed at a beach and a joyous trip to a chain restaurant, but it’s basically, as one character says, very “Wild West.” Drugs and sex abound, regardless of class or age. “Sarah and Dave brought heroin!” crows the hostess (Connie Britton) at a yuppie end-of-days party, while her husband (Rob Corddry) pours stiff drinks for elementary school-aged kids. Another friend (Patton Oswalt) encourages Dodge to take advantage of the way the impending apocalypse has leveled the sexual playing field. But Dodge is too square and serious to do so. This is the quintessential Steve Carell role, sad sack with dignity, and not so different from his dumped husband in last summer’s Crazy Stupid Love, but here he reveals both a more nuanced undercurrent of anger and more tenderness.
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Seeking feels heavily influenced by, of all things, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Carell playing the George Peppard role to Knightley’s Audrey Hepburn. Like Holly Golightly, Penny is a party girl who loves music. (So does Scafaria; she also wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. She uses music very carefully in Seeking, letting ambient sound work as the backdrop except when Penny is playing her precious records, or say, a car radio is on.) Penny crawls through Dodge’s window from the fire escape, Holly-like, on first introduction to avoid a boyfriend (Adam Brody) she’s dumping. Holly puffed on a cigarette in a holder; Penny prefers a joint. Moreover, the conversation between Dodge and Penny is, from the get go, necessarily of a darker nature than Paul and Holly’s ever were: “I won’t steal anything if you don’t rape me,” she bargains with Dodge when she enters his apartment.
Their roadtrip begins as a means of avoiding a riot and then evolves into a quest for both of them. Dodge wants to find his first love, Olivia, while Penny has hopes of getting someone with a private plane to fly her to England. They take along a stray dog and pay visits to friends and family along the way, including Penny’s insanely handsome, kind of creepy ex-boyfriend (Derek Luke), a survivalist who plans on getting through the apocalypse. For both of them, there’s a blossoming sense of freedom, albeit a rueful one (“I was totally going to peak at 40,” Penny says) and affection. Knightley has been steadily making movies, but some of have gone straight to video on demand for good reason (London Boulevard, Last Night) or perhaps been too challenging (the beautiful Never Let Me Go) so it feels as though she’s been off the radar for a bit. She’s certainly been out of the corset (with the notable exception of the upcoming Anna Karenina). Perhaps adorable pixie chick isn’t much of a stretch for her, but she’s captivating in Seeking and she and Carell develop an easy comic rhythm together.
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Who would have imagined Carell and Knightley sharing a screen would make any sense at all? On paper they seem as mismatched as Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—another existential comedy with bittersweet undertones. I’ll admit that my level of emotional engagement wavered through the first two thirds of the movie as I tried to reconcile both this pairing and to manage my instinctual expectation that there would be a way around the asteroid. But when Seeking took hold of me, completely and without warning, I was digging for tissues. It’s a lovely surprise for the official start of summer.
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