Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

An asteroid the size of Manhattan is hurtling toward Earth and the last attempt to divert it has failed. In 21 days, it will all be over and Dodge’s (Steve Carell) wife does not want to spend it with him, dashing off into the night. Alone, and lonely, he meets Penny (Kiera Knightley) his next door neighbor who is also “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.”

It seems like end of the world flicks are going to stay around, what with ”On the Beach (1959)”, “Dr. Strangelove” and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” and, now, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” (which could have been named “Melancholy”). Newcomer writer-director Lorene Scafaria takes her straightforward premise – the tragedy of the end of the earth and mankind – and combines humor and, yes, melancholy to tell the story of two lonely people who find each other too late (or just in time?).

Steve Carell gives a more serious than comic performance and makes you feel his loneliness and despair. I did not get, though, the romance between Dodge and Penny. Something about Knightley’s character that did not ring true to me and I did not get a sense of chemistry between the two actors or their characters. Almost a distraction, too, is the bevy of cameo roles by a whole bunch of actors including Melanie Lynskey, Adam Brody, Gillian Jacobs, Connie Britton, Patton Oswalt, Martin Sheen, Melinda Dillon, William Peterson and Rob Corddry. I spent too much time figuring out who’s who in supporting roles, unnecessarily taking me away from Dodge and Penny’s tale.

What I appreciate about the script by Lorene Scafaria is the way she draws the reactions to the coming Armageddon by those characters Dodge and Penny meet along their journey. Some want to party until they (quite literally) drop. Others, like Dodge’s housekeeper Elsa (Tonita Castro), simply ignore the coming destruction of Earth and continue with their day-to-day routine. Many, though, take to the streets in anger, rioting against their fate. This sociological study of the human mind is more compelling than the story of Dodge and Penny. I give it a C+..

On a quiet suburban road, Dodge (Steve Carell, "Crazy, Stupid, Love") and his wife Linda (Nancy Carell) sit in a parked car listening to the news that the last ditch effort by a U.S. space shuttle to destroy the 70 mile wide asteroid Matilda from striking earth has failed.  Linda bolts from the car and runs away.  Dodge sinks into a depression that his friends' wild parties and interested new women cannot dislodge until one night he finds his neighbor crying outside his window in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."

With December 21,  2012 looming as the Mayan end-of-days (since debunked), cinematic apocalypse has been a current theme in entertainment.  Last year alone brought us Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," Brit Marling's "Another Earth" and such television shows as 'Falling Skies' and 'The Walking Dead' among others.  Now, making her directorial debut, screenwriter Lorene Scafaria steps in to apply a romantic comedy twist, applying the same love for music which drew together the two lovers of "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist."  The film has its charms, especially if you can get into the melancholy yearning Steve Carell brought to "Dan in Real Life," but despite his costar's defense of opposites attracting, Carell and Knightley only really seem to click romantically as the last man and woman on earth.

Don McKellar's 1999 film "Last Night" hit all the same beats - the corporate world continuing on when it has obviously become irrelevant (here Carell's insurance policies, there, Cronenberg's exec promising gas deliveries), sex and partying, reuniting with family and the surprise of finding a new love - but then again, the romantic comedy throughline excepted, that's how people probably would divide if faced with global destruction - those who continue with the status quo, those who give in to ultimate hedonism and those who put family first.

Some of Scafaria's best bits come from the carry-on'ers.  Dodge is flabbergasted to find his housekeeper, Elsa (Tonita Castro, "Funny People," "Sound of My Voice"), keeping her Thursday date with only three weeks before collision.  Any attempt he makes to explain to her that she needn't spend her remaining time cleaning his apartment is met with confusion and hurt, so he gives in.  'More windows,' she advises on her way out, jiggling the Windex bottle.  At his office, some continue to show up and the desperately cheerful HR manager is offering the position of CFO to anyone who will have it.  In a lovely performance, Mark Moses (TV's 'Desperate Housewives,' 'The Killing') embodies that type of serious but comforting anchorman we used to have guide us through the most chilling news right up through the film's last act, a true journalistic calling.

Things escalate the night Dodge goes out for 'more windows.'  He's gouged at the local store and tries to drink it in despair on the way home.  When he awakens, he finds a like-minded soul has abandoned his dog with him and left a note simply saying 'Sorry,' the name Dodge bestows upon the pooch.  When he gets home, rioting has overtaken his neighborhood.  He finds Penny (Knightley) crying outside his window and invites her inside - she offers not to steal his stuff if he doesn't rape her.  This is the way the world ends.

Well, not quite.  Seems Penny let Dodge's misdelivered mail pile up in her apartment and he discovers a months-old letter from Olivia, his high school sweetheart, saying he was the love of her life.  Guilty, Penny offers to get him to Olivia's house to make amends but their journey will be circuitous, retouching on all the end-of-the-world types already outlined, throwing a survivalist, Penny's ex Speck (Derek Luke, "Antwone Fisher"), into the mix.

Do not be taken by the film's long supporting cast list - players like Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights") and Melanie Lynskey ("Heavenly Creatures") only appear early and briefly (Patton Oswalt barely rates a sentence or two of drunken dialogue).  Rob Corddry ("Cedar Rapids") is amusing as Connie's husband, intent on alcoholic obliteration for both himself and his kids ('Get past the burn!').  'CSI's' William Petersen is another who doesn't want to wait while comic T.J. Miller and 'Community's' Gillian Jacobs have upped the ante as staff at chain restaurant Friendsy's.  "Our Idiot Brother's" cop Bob Stephenson wears a badge again here upholding laws unlikely to protect anyone anymore.  An unbilled Martin Sheen proves a double surprise.

There's a quite lovely sequence when Dodge and Penny come across a procession crossing the road.  They pull over and follow it and we learn it is a Baptism being held at the edge of the sea, a charming way to work in spirituality with a light touch.  The travelers sit on the beach and play his harmonica.  But as good as Scafaria is hitting musical notes ('The sun ain't gonna shine anymore' has never been more poignant), she runs into ditches with transportation (a below ground survivalist with a car fleet sitting in a yard?  wishful thinking on a plane's range, etc.).

"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is an episodic road movie using an end of the world scenario for its protagonists to address their real values.  It doesn't always work, but when it does it can be gently funny or genuinely moving.

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