Monday, July 2, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

The world is ending. In most end-times disaster movies, we watch as experts in their field - think Dennis Quaid's climatologist in The Day After Tomorrow or Robert Duvall's astronaut in Deep Impact - do their best to warn the world's leaders of our imminent demise, then join the effort to avert disaster. In the end, millions of faceless individuals perish in the floods/comet strikes/alien takeovers/flat-out cataclysm, but the human race ultimately survives thanks to the heroics (and, usually, sacrifices) of our protagonist, and the Earth gets the chance to rebuild society, a blank slate on which we can make our civilization better.

Dodge (Steve Carell), Penny (Kiera Knightley), and the denizens of Earth in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, are afforded no such comforts. The film begins with the announcement that the last-ditch effort to save the Earth from a massive asteroid strike has failed; total annihilation is inevitable, and it's coming in just three weeks. Dodge's wife (played, in a brief cameo, by Carell's real-life wife Nancy Carell) bails on him in favor of...well, spending her life without being attached to her sad-sack husband, basically. While his friends (a delightful assortment that includes Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, and Patton Oswalt) want to spend their final days in a sex, booze, and drug-fueled bacchanalia, Dodge has no direction. He continues to wander into his job as an insurance salesman, until he decides to pursue his high school sweetheart. Penny, his downstairs neighbor, has just broken up with her loutish boyfriend (Adam Brody), and decides to join Dodge on his quest, namely so that she can go back to England and spend her final days with her family.

For its first half, the film is remarkably thoughtful in its presentation of end-of-the-world hysteria. There are no glimpses of the asteroid, no national landmarks being destroyed, just average people dealing with the fact that their lives are ending in three weeks, and there's nothing they can do about it. The various paths people take - attempting to maintain a routine, throwing massive orgies, rioting - feel organic, and you get the sense that everybody here is, deep down, scared shitless. Dodge and Penny make a great mismatched pair of friends, a chemistry that doesn't feel romantic but rather like the kind of friendship that develops when people are forced to rely on each other.

And therein lies the problem. You can tell exactly where this story is going, and that chemistry never evolves into anything more, which, for a romantic comedy (of sorts), is never a good thing. The third act of the film, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (writer of the underrated gem Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist), gets bogged down by the would-be romance. Penny, though played fully by Knightley, is ultimately a Doomsday version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that prevents her from ever coming into her own as a character. Though Carell excels in roles that trade-in on his natural put-upon demeanor, he never gets a chance to make Dodge anymore than a romantic mope, an Eeyore in puppy love. A little more development (and different casting) would have gone a long way.

There are still several funny moments though, and occasionally the conversations between Dodge and Penny find the poignancy that Scafaria was going for. As a first-time director, Scafaria shows promise, not exactly presenting anything too technically dazzling (a riot is about as close as she gets to a major setpiece), but she excels at finding the tiny moments that sell both the comedy and the drama. Those moments go a long away, and prevents the film from completely falling apart.

Seeking a Friend takes a bold step in our obsession with the end of the world, presenting it at a street-level without all the glitz and glare of special effects and destructive setpieces. However, with the mismatched pairing of Carell and Knightley, perhaps it wouldn't have been the end of the world for them to just stay friends. B

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