RogerBW's Blog

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World 14 October 2014

2012, dir. Lorene Scafaria, Steve Carell, Keira Knightley: IMDb / allmovie

The world will be hit by an asteroid in three weeks, and there's nothing more that can be done about it. Dodge and his neighbour Penny set out to get him to his high school sweetheart, and her to her family in England.

Of course, as anyone who's seen a romantic comedy before will immediately know, the real story here is each of them slowly realising (maybe, or maybe not, before it's too late) that the other is in fact the right one for them to spend the last days with.

Several of the initial scenes deal with the process of acceptance, by Dodge and others, that there's really no longer any point carrying on going to your boring dead-end job, living your boring dead-end life, when it's all going to be over soon anyway. Different people come to this realisation at different rates, and that's a significant part of the early humour here. The comparison that springs to mind is with Nevil Shute's On the Beach, which similarly populates its secondary cast with people finding their own ways to cope with their inevitable demise; but here the frantic dancing on the edge of the grave at least seems to have a feeling of enjoyment to it ("Sarah and Dave brought heroin!") which was never present in the Shute. It's even visible in William Petersen's excellent short turn as a trucker who's made his own arrangements. All that setup is wisely got out of the way early on, as the story shifts to the road and the two principals.

Knightley seems slightly ill at ease as Penny; she's playing to a "flaky" stereotype, and is a good enough actress to move slightly beyond that, but never seems quite to know where she's going with it. In a lesser film she'd drop straight into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl style; Scafaria's genius as writer and director (and yes, in her first outing as director she shoots her own script, something I keep saying people shouldn't do but here it works) is to keep her just barely clear of that. Even so, I can think of many actresses who'd have managed to underplay the part and give a better impression of inhabiting their own skin rather than a created character, starting with Marion Cotillard and Gwyneth Paltrow. Carell starts off more sensibly portraying Dodge as a cipher, for whom a gradual opening-up is one of the standard plot lines, and while he doesn't particularly colour outside the lines he carries the role effectively. Both of these people are right for each other, each making the other a better person.

The only real misstep, I think, is the sudden announcement near the end that the asteroid will be arriving a week earlier than forecast, that very night; this is so implausible that it threw me out of suspension of disbelief, making itself obvious as a plot token. Yes, I do realise this isn't meant to be a treatise on orbital mechanics! Even so, that's just not the sort of error that happens in the real world, and it feels as though Scafaria ran out of ideas for things to happen.

To some viewers the premise seemed to make the whole thing pointless: what do the problems of two little people amount to when the world's going to be drifting dust next week? But to me that's exactly the reason the film works: even when everyone knows that life isn't going to go on, life goes on. This is a celebration of humanity in its final moments.

As with several other films I've seen recently, this is a low-budget apocalypse, with very little in the way of special effects (a bullet through a windscreen is about the size of it), and most of the landscape we see is deserted. Total production budget was around $10m, and lifetime worldwide gross a little less than that, which must make the film count as a commercial failure. I think that's a shame: this is exactly the sort of human story I want from the end of the world, and great big booms can go hang. Like the same year's The Cabin in the Woods seen in terms of horror film, Seeking a Friend uses the standard rom-com tropes so well and so thoroughly that it wouldn't be unfair to declare the genre dead, or at least in desperate need of an innovator to re-invent it from bare rock.

Maybe we weren't so bad.

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