End of the world stories, like Penny (Keira Knightley) said in her monologue about vinyl records, aren’t for everyone. Barring the humor and near outlandish situations, disheartening stories like this always end in tears. But even though the audience and the characters know their unavoidable fate, does it have to be the case? In this dramedy from Lorene Scafaria we see how hopeless characters attempt to control the downward spiral, look on the brighter side of life and find a final purpose for their lives. From the opening scene to the final moments we watch two people try to make the most of their time in ways that are awkward, absurd, comical and tender. They sure have a lot to do with their final 3 weeks on the planet and such is life without impending doom, there never is enough time.
Earth’s days are numbered as a asteroid 70 miles wide threatens our very existence. With just 3 weeks before the inbound city sized rock wipes out the planet, two unlikely individuals, Penny (Carell) and Dodge (Knightley), neighbors actually, find solace in each other as the world falls to pieces around them. Dodge’s wife has just left him and Penny is on the outs with her boyfriend so with no family to turn to, the two take up with each other and set off on a road trip knowing that seeking any kind of refuge or comfort is a futile errand. As fate would have it Dodge receives a letter from his high school sweetheart and so with the possibility of seeing her one last time they begin their road trip. Yet as Penny goes along for the ride, while trying to help, she unknowingly but consistently takes them one step forward and two steps back.
While the title seems a bit bleak, the film is not all doom and gloom. Starring actors known for lighter and more charismatic fares the films is both playful and a somber as Seeking A Friend paints a gentler side to the idea of global annihilation. The opening scenes of the film set the pace of the absurd hysteria to come. We find that even with 3 weeks to go, some people still attempt to retain normalcy. From going to work to having dinner parties, most everyone is still in shock and the film shows the slow decay of the people who haven’t already checked out or completely lost it. With a let’s have a laugh at it mentality, Lorene Scafaria’s film is like a combination of the human side of Zombieland and the quirky side of Garden State. Things never really spin wildly out of control and while we hear about riots and see a small skirmish things never turn into a wide-spread apocalypse of fire and decay. It’s almost more odd and scary to see people maintaining composure than wildly flying off the handle.
The convoluted tone of the film bogs things down and the pace greatly suffers. Going for a morbidly comical tone Seeking a Friend has trouble juggling a somberness with an urge to give the entire fated affair a plucky disposition. At times it works and when it doesn’t things feel forced almost to the point that the film is not a cohesive narrative but more a collection of skits. It’s kind of a bold move to tell a story with such an unavoidable outcome and try to sugar coat it. Not like anyone is living in denial but it’s almost more believable to think Carell and Knightly would end up together that it would to find so many people still acting civil, or tying at least. However there are sparks of brilliance amid the forced elements. One such scene, which kind of sets up and sums up the entire laughably terminal story, we watch Dodge, who has accepted that the end is near, decides to have pity and spare an insect in his bathroom sink. Only in this now hopeless world, even Karma has sufficiently checked out and Dodge finds his kindness isn’t rewarded in the least.
Part of following any story is suspending disbelief but even so, and in an any port in a storm/all bets are off mindset, when the world is truly coming to an end it’s a tough sell buying Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as being romantically involved. But the same can be said for any number of films and one that immediately spring to mind a little Sofia Coppola film from 2003. Still they just felt miscast. They are undeniably delightful in the roles, and but it’s just a lot to ask that these two would be each other’s rock and that feelings would develop so fast…then again, not like any of us have even been in their shoes so maybe it’s wrong to judge.
Carell is great at playing the down-of-his-luck every man and Knightly’s cheery disposition is sure to brighten anyone’s dour day. They play off each other well but their efforts would have been better suited for another film altogether. Not for a lack of their trying but the humor, even in cameos from Patton Oswalt and William Peterson, is hit or miss because we’re almost not sure what we’re supposed to laugh at. Do we take the morbid bits seriously or treat this as black comedy and laugh uncomfortably/guiltily? While the whole message is brings to mind that final closing number in Monty Python’s brilliant Life of Brian to call this a straight-up comedy is just misleading. It is, at times romantic, and comedic but not a rom-com either. So if the all-over-the-map pace and the nebulous narrative to the scenes don’t make you wonder just where it’s all going or how you should feel, you’re not alone.
Seeking A Friend for the End of the World, is not an introspective, it’s not a check-list for checking out, nor is it a ponder your life film, it is, most fittingly a road movie. Albeit a different kind of road trip than we’ve seen before, it’s loses direction as it tries to simultaneously pluck your heartstrings while also trying to tickle your funny bone. That two prong approach ends up being more distracting and confusing than effective. So in the end it is disjointed, lopsided but also poetic and moderately charming. Maybe like our ill-fated protagonists, we can’t win for losing. In a film about the end of the world, maybe it was intentionally asking us to find anything to latch onto til the end of the runtime. But like anyone about to meet their maker, maybe we all would have wanted something more before our time is truly up.