Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (United States, 2012)June 19, 2012
Someone could write a compelling thesis about humanity's obsession with the apocalypse. Over the years, the cinema has exploited this affinity, most often in disaster movies. Lately, however, there has been a trend toward end-of-the-world films that focus more on the human element than the global one. Lars von Trier's Melancholia, for example, cared little about the science of an extinction event (to the point where his utter lack of any kind of realistic touchstone became a distraction) and instead explored how a small group of individuals would react to their imminent demise. For her directorial debut, writer Lorene Scafaria has taken a parallel route but with less self-conscious artiness. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not mainstream fare, but neither is it as willfully obtuse as Melancholia. Both movies, however, reject sensationalism in an effort to ground their stories. In fact, it would seem that the effects budget for the von Trier film was higher than the one for Seeking a Friend. (Or at least that's how it looks.)
Seeking a Friend is a sometimes frustrating mix of wonderfully effective moments and scenes that simply don't work. Ultimately, what makes the movie worth seeing is not the awkward, failed attempts at comedy but the deep reservoir of emotionally wrenching material plumbed (sometimes unintentionally) by the screenplay. Seeking a Friend reminds us that the end of the world represents a conclusion to all stories, a brutal recognition that no hopes or dreams will be fulfilled. The two-year old child will not grow up, have friends, graduate from high school, and get married. The pregnant woman will never give birth. Estranged friends and family members will never be reunited. Seeking a Friend doesn't dwell on these issues, but it acknowledges them, much as it provides a wide sampling of how people face Armageddon: sex, drugs, solitude, suicide, rioting, sticking doggedly to a routine, or just trying to find someone to connect with before it's all over. Steven Stills would understand: love the one you're with.
Seeking a Friend is being marketed as a comedy, which is a mistake. Just because Steve Carell is the lead does not mean this is a laugh-riot. Some attempts at humor succeed but many fall flat (the annoying boyfriend being an example of the latter). For the most part, drama and emotional honesty give this movie life. It's a road picture with a significant romantic component, and it doesn't punk out at the finish line (although it loses some steam getting there). Anyone expecting Carell to be in full Anchorman/40-Year-Old Virgin mode will be disappointed. The ad campaign and trailers want Seeking a Friend to be something it isn't.
The movie opens with a none-too-subtle swipe at Armageddon as a radio broadcast announces the explosion of a space shuttle that was Earth's last hope to deflect the asteroid Matilda from a collision with the planet. There are three weeks left before the 70-mile diameter space rock makes most life extinct. A somewhat stunned Dodge (Steve Carell) carries on for a few days before recognizing that his last weeks should be spent differently than showing up for work at an insurance company. Eventually, he decides to seek out "the one who got away" - his high school sweetheart, Olivia. Meanwhile, his downstairs neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), is going through her own last days crisis. Her family is in the U.K. but, since all commercial air travel has shut down, she has no way of getting home to be with them for the end. Dodge claims to know someone with a plane and offers her a deal: if she helps him locate Olivia, he'll get her home. Unsurprisingly, along the way, they meet a number of unusual characters and fall in love.
Seeking a Friend plays to the strengths of both leads, allowing Carell to be the controlled introvert and Knightley to portray the bubbly extrovert. Knightley's shining moment occurs during a telephone call; Carell's best scene is one in which he makes a silent sacrifice. The chemistry between the two is understated but palpable (much like the sex scene). Viewed as a romance, Seeking a Friend works in large part because the leads are given ample opportunity to get to know one another. They share the screen enough to make us believe they are falling for one another. And most of the typical romantic comedy impediments are absent.
As with most road movies, familiar faces appear in brief vignettes. The two most memorable are Martin Sheen as Frank, a man who can achieve redemption by making a deal, and William Petersen as a man suffering terminal cancer who takes out a contract on his own life. Why go that way? Because no one should know the day they're going to die. There's logic in that argument. Derek Luke, Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Connie Britton, and Melanie Lynskey also have small roles.
The end of the world will never be far from any viewer's mind. Lest we forget, there are frequent shots of a TV news anchor giving the latest updates. Certain elements lack verisimilitude (California, for example, is a horrible stand-in for the East Coast) but the movie does a good enough job with the background elements to not destroy the suspension of disbelief. There are some narrative hiccups during the final fifteen minutes but the movie ends as it must, and there's an earnestness to this "happily ever after" that is often absent from road trips and romances. In this case, we don't have to worry about this mismatched love affair falling apart after the end credits roll.
The thing I respect the most about Seeking a Friend is that it got me to think about how I would react in these circumstances. I believed in the characters and, although their actions didn't always ring true, there's an emotional honesty to the way director Scafaria addresses them. Her attempts at humor fail more often than they work - this isn't an especially funny movie - but there aren't many of them. Seeking a Friend wants to say something about the human need to connect, and it does so in a convincing and satisfying way. This is a flawed motion picture, but it has stuck with me longer than I expected. It's as life-affirming as an extinction event film can be.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (United States, 2012)
Cast: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Martin Sheen, William Petersen, Derek Luke
Screenplay: Lorene Scafaria
Cinematography: Tim Orr
Music: Jonathan Sadoff, Rob Simonsen
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features