Admitting one’s mortality can be a difficult thing for anybody to do, especially when life has not been entirely kind and goals remain unfulfilled. The pre-cataclysmic scenario of the new movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World forces each of its characters to face the end of his/her own existence, as well as the conclusion of all of humankind. The emotionally secure (or downright insane) supporting characters fully embrace the impending doom by finding religion, engaging in a binge of debauchery, or ending their lives on their own terms. The two protagonists, however, deal with the end of times the way many Americans deal with everyday conflict – by not talking about it.
Steve Carell plays Dodge, a 40-something insurance salesman whose wife literally runs away from him when news breaks that the impending Earth destruction via asteroid is inevitable. Keira Knightley plays Penny, a transplant to New York from England who drops her slacker boyfriend when she learns that the timetable for human existence is now only 14 days. The two of them share an apartment complex where they plan to finish out their existence in solitude and self pity. Luckily for them, New York City erupts in a riot and they choose to help one another accomplish one last thing before the world ends – Dodge wants to go find that one girl who got away and Penny wants to see her parents one last time.
Like many romantic road trip movies, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is less about the destination than it is about the conversations that they have along the way. Through the lens of our two main characters we see how a variety of individuals spend their last days. These include an eccentric trucker who has arranged for suicide via assassin, a group of survivalists who are confident they can survive Earth’s annihilation, and a restaurant whose staff have turned the place into a 24-hour drug and orgy festival. All the while Penny and Dodge do their best to avoid referring directly to the end of the world, instead slowly peeling back layers of character until they are comfortable with one another and with their own fears and desires.
Writer Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) makes her directorial debut for this film and infuses it with some surprisingly subtle and intimate moments while also making a few beginners mistakes. There are some remarkably strong individual moments between Carell and Knightley, specifically when the two of them are alone having a simple conversation. One particularly great moment consists of them talking casually over dinner while a record plays in the background. Scafaria uses silence brilliantly when the record begins to skip and we see a subtle beat change and realize that the characters have changed their goal for the last ever road trip.
The original music provided by Jonathan Sadoff and Rob Simonsen plays a strong role along with several classic and contemporary pop music songs. Scafaria relies too heavily on montages underscored with music to portray character arcs when the quiet moments work so much better. There is a significant character introduced near the end, played by an actor who can do more with good dialogue than just about anybody working today, who is given a few words and then a lengthy montage that almost derails all of the strong character work that had been building up to that point. Luckily, this character goes away and the film wraps up nicely before the credits roll.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has been unfairly billed as a comedy by the marketing team at Focus Features, even though it has only a few more laughs than John Hillcoat’s The Road. This is likely due to the cast, which sprinkles in comedians like Rob Huebel, Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, and T.J. Miller along with headliner Steve Carell. Carell, however, is at his dramatic finest providing work that has only been bested by his supporting turn in Little Miss Sunshine. Keira Knightley, who has always been better in more poetically-scripted period pieces, gets some indie cred with one of the most subtle performances of her career. There are genuine stakes in each of their performances and their chemistry is indelible.
There are less themes in play than one would expect from a film that sets itself up with a scenario that could ask so many big questions, but that’s part of what makes it charming. Don’t expect to leave the theatre with dozens of ideas swirling in your head, but you may find a stronger desire to hold the things and people that are important a little closer.
Bottom Line: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a sweet little film about mortality and doesn’t try to be anything more.