Review: “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”
Produced by: Steve Golin, Joy Gorman, Mark Roybal, Steven M. Rales
Written by: Lorene Scafaria
Cinematography by: Tim Orr
Editing by: Zene Baker
Music by: Jonathan Sadoff, Rob Simonsen
Starring: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Adam Brody, Martin Sheen, Mark Moses
Even though the chances of the 2012 apocalypse actually playing out the doomsday scenario so many are still claiming it will are infinitesimally small, the very thought about life as we know it ending forever does get one thinking about what matters most to them and to mankind in general. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a romantic comedy that attempts to examine this profound question by following in the life of a middle aged insurance salesman and his ditzy Manic Pixie archetype neighbor with whom he inevitably falls in love with as they head out on a road trip, facing an end of the world scenario thanks to the giant asteroid heading in Earth’s direction.
Steve Carell plays Dodge, the aforementioned insurance salesman. At the start of the film, he and his wife (played by Carell’s real life wife Nancy Carell) are sitting in their car listening to the news as it is announced that the space mission sent out to avert the disaster has failed, and life as we know it only has 3 weeks left to go on. Immediately, Dodge’s wife runs from the car, abandoning her husband for who knows what, or even whom. Obviously distraught by these two simultaneous events, Dodge continues on leading his life, going to work and the meetings that come along with it, trying to pretend like nothing has changed. And, for a while, it seems like most other people are in a similar state of quasi-denial. Dodge still has a few co-workers, who are, for once, offered newly vacated spots in top positions at the insurance company — one need only raise a hand to apply!
One night, however, Dodge discovers his downstairs neighbor, Penny, crying on his fire escape. Inviting her in, he attempts to comfort her, and she reveals that she just broke up with her boyfriend. The two have an unusually quick bonding experience, even for the end of the earth, and Penny and Dodge wind up sleeping on the same couch as they mindlessly watch such time wasters as ESPN Classic. It isn’t long before riots break out in the streets, however, and so Dodge’s first thought is to save the girl downstairs from the oncoming crowd.
Heading out on the road, accompanied by the unwanted dog Dodge had previously taken in, the unlikely duo make a pact to get each other to their final destinations: Dodge to a former girlfriend who recently expressed her regret at having broken up with him all those years ago, and Penny to her family in England, despite the lack of commercial flights in the world’s final days. But, even when facing the end of the world, both soon discover that the things that they thought wanted are quickly being replaced by something new but inevitably short-lived: a relationship with each other.
The movie wasn’t very well received, neither by critics nor audiences, who either shunned the film actively or passively, receiving a meager 55% approval rating through Rotten Tomatoes and earning a mere $3 million in its opening weekend, despite the star power on display. It’s not exactly an original scenario, either, as many have compared the film to the 1998 Canadian film Last Night, which followed a group of friends who dealt with a similar doomsday scenario. Based on the reactions I’ve seen, many would consider this heresy to say, but I was completely unaware of Last Night‘s existence up until reading comments connected to reviews of this film, and so I went into viewing this movie with lower expectations that likely resulted in my finding Seeking a Friend to be far more endearing than I had expected.
Steve Carell is one of those guys who is just plain likeable in any role that you put him in, whether it’s a dimwitted office boss, a maniacal evil genius supervillain with a heart of gold, or any number of other pathetic sad saps dealing with their personal turmoils silently but in plane site of others, and in Seeking a Friend, I think he’s proven that he can be a great romantic lead, despite his unconventional non-Hollywood looks. There’s a certain genial, sweet quality to everything that he does that never seems forced or unnatural, and I think that’s because, at least in interviews, Carell also seems to be pretty much similarly the nicest, funniest guy. That isn’t to say that what he’s doing is easy, either — unlike characters like Michael Scott, Evan Baxter, or Brick Tamland, Dodge is at times a deeply serious, depressed character, and Carell excels at drawing your sympathies without resorting to caricature or moping all the time. When Penny tells him just how much she admires him, Dodge’s response, with Carell’s delivery, pretty much sums up Dodge’s character in a perfect nutshell: “You’re a bad judge of character,” he tells her with equal measures of self-pity, thankfulness, and affection.
Keira Knightley, meanwhile, is also wonderful, despite having to play the rather less interesting Manic Pixie Dream Girl type, as previously stated. Penny is the kind of girl who has a strong affection for thick, heavy vinyl records, frilly pink dresses with olive-colored jackets, and a free-love embracing spirit that helps draw her nearer to Dodge, despite their significant age difference. It’s not a stretch to imagine Zooey Deschanel in the role, with parents in England being swapped out for parents in California or something, but Knightley manages to make the rather dull-by-now character type enjoyable again, if only for her lovely English accent and for the evenness and fluidity of the character — Knightley plays the role with subtle grace that works with the script and helps make the material feel more gradual than had the role been played by someone who held her emotions all in until a single emotional burst. Penny feels real, in other words, and so therefore, we care about her.
Being essentially a comedic road trip movie, it’s inevitable that cameos abound, with familiar faces popping up in both fleeting appearances and significant, story-moving roles. I won’t list them off or anything, but if you’ve seen any number of NBC’s sitcom lineup or any R-rated comedy within the past decade, you’re going to find faces to recognize and point at, each playing a memorable enough character. These characters and scenes they feature in do not overplay their stays, and while many of them aren’t terribly realistic, they do give us a certain perception into how the rest of the world is handling the situation outside of Dodge and Penny’s relationship. Some turn towards faith or religion while others — many, many others — embrace their hedonistic side, as one would expect. Inhibitions and reputations are thrown out the window when people are faced with the inevitable staring them in the face a little bit earlier than expected.
Seeking a Friend isn’t some sci-fi movie intending to delve into these scenarios too much, however, and so we don’t spend any more time outside of the core characters than is needed. A subplot with Dodge’s father is worked in at the last segment and perhaps isn’t all that it could be, serving more as a deus ex machina solution to a certain problem than it is an effective emotional event that advances any of the characters, but since it gets us to a heavy climax that tugs the heartstrings in the best way possible, I can forgive it for the most part. The film is best seen as an enjoyable romcom that presents a bizarre worst case scenario for a romantic relationship between two unlikely characters (played by unlikely romantic leads) that asks us to rethink our priorities and reconsider what really matters in our lives if we were presented with an end of the world scenario, inevitably revealing our true selves. Some may turn to drugs and alcohol or may live out the rest of their lives in complete denial about the truth, but for Dodge and Penny, it’s all about loving one another and finding as much joy as possible with each other while we still can, as even a short while spent in love is better than a long time spent in even the mundane.
Again, it’s not the most original movie with the most original message, but I found myself swept away in its story and the characters featuring in it, and though it may not be the most realistic or serious portrayal of an end-of-world scenario, Seeking a Friend for the end of the World is wonderfully sentimental piece of escapist entertainment that’s both funny and touching to boot, thanks in large part to the wonderful performances of the two leads and their supporting cast. If you haven’t shed a tear once throughout the film and are not bawling by the end, as I was bewildered to find myself doing as I sat on my couch clutching a pillow as I wiped away tears, then maybe, just maybe, you might want to consider reexamining your own life and figuring out what may be wrong with you. Life’s too short to always be waiting for the next Terms of Endearment when perfectly fine, escapist movies like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World can also be had at more regular intervals.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5