Seeking a Friend for the End of the World Review
What would you do if you knew the world only had three weeks left before a huge meteorite was due to collide and bring with it the destruction of all life on the planet? Panic? Drink? Riot? Suffer depression? Be elated? Contact lost loves? Live without limits? Indulge? Or carry on the same? Perhaps all of the above? What then would society do when faced with such a situation? Follow the same path as the individual? Would there be a moral decline, or an upsurge in relations? Would war finally become a thing of the past, would poverty be irradiated? Maybe it would tear itself apart in a frantic last ditch effort to survive? Philosophical questions, some of which are addressed in tonight’s feature, which is a bitter sweet tale of two individuals who come across each other in the wake of the devastating news that the world is literally about to end, that doesn’t push too hard, nor attempt to lay the foundations for survival, but tries to put forward the idea that the human condition, or spirit, if you will, is something that cannot be extinguished just because all life can be. Somewhat disjointed and a little meandering at times the final few moments more than make up for any deficiencies that the whole might have. Ladies and gentlemen prepare for the end as I give you tonight’s apocalyptic feature: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
A man and a woman sit in a car listening to a radio broadcast. The newscaster is informing of a disaster that has befallen a shuttle mission causing the death of all those on board. And as a result the seventy mile asteroid, called Matilda, is now on an unstoppable collision course with Earth, the result of which will extinguish all life. The couple look at each other, the full gravity of this monumental news etched on their faces. The man opens his mouth to speak. The woman turns, opens the door and runs – runs as fast as she can away and never looks back. We’ve just met our leading man, Dodge, and from this brief introduction we can pretty much deduce what his life is all about, not least because he’s played by Steve Carrell. Carrell is a very likeable comedy actor who has tried his hand a various roles, but the one he has made his own is the “nice guy that has bad luck and just makes the best of what life throws”. It is a role he has perfected in such films as Dan in Real Life or Little Miss Sunshine, though many of his characters incorporate similar traits – and though he has a penchant for gross out humour roles, like many comedians of his ilk, he is at his best when taking on the tragic. The role of Dodge is then tailor made for him as it is exactly that, the kind of person that will allow a spider to live only to have that same spider bite him on the face while he sleeps. After his wife literally runs off, Dodge pretty much continues on with his life, much like many other people when faced with apocalyptic news. He works (ironically) in insurance and continues to try and sell the ‘apocalyptic clause’, not surprisingly no one wants it. Through him we watch how the world around him adjusts to the impending doom; from guilt free hard drug use to orgies, it seems everyone is dealing with the news in their own way, and all the while Dodge watches on like an outsider, trying to come to terms with the last three weeks of his life. Things only really change for him when he invites his long time, no speak, neighbour in from the fire-escape - an act which sets off a chain of events that will lead up to the last person he ever loves.
Penny is a British ex-pat who continually makes the wrong choices with her lovers and flits through life with little care for herself or those around her. Her and Dodge’s initial meeting sees her in floods of tears having missed the very last flight to the UK because she was arguing with her boyfriend, and Dodge, being the gentleman he is, invites her in and gives her shelter from the storm - in fact she sleeps for nearly a day. Her uncaring attitude is not one of malice, but one of a flibbertigibbet; when returning to her own apartment she hands over Dodge’s mail that she has held onto for months and inadvertently informs him of his wife’s infidelity. Penny is brought to life in a stunning performance by Keira Knightley who manages to be both vulnerable and determined sometimes in the same scene. In fact there are a couple of scenes with her, one when she is talking to her family via satellite phone, where she emotes so beautifully the loss and hurt she is feeling at knowing this will be the last time she will be able to talk to them. Director Lorene Scafaria very wisely lingers on this scene, never cutting away allowing Knightley to bloom under the tragic nature of the scene – it is almost voyeuristic in nature and becomes all the more powerful for it. Of course Knightley is no stranger to tragic roles and in this sense Penny is the perfect vehicle for her to express the angst that everyone would feel, knowing what is going to happen and powerless to stop it - and to bring it to such heights in a one sided convocation is nothing short of remarkable.
After this initial meeting and finding out the news of his wife, Dodge has the one and only true emotional breakdown of his life, in a blind fit of rage he takes to the park drinking window-cleaner in an attempt to end it all; only to wake with a cute mutt tethered to his leg with a note saying ‘sorry’. Unable to stay mad, perhaps relieved at his survival and with his caring nature, once again, brought out by the arrival of a dog, Dodge heads home to sift through the mail only to find a letter from his ‘one true love’, in actuality his first high-school love and ‘the one that got away’. Having only reminisced about her the night before Dodge finally has an idea about how he wants to spend his last days on Earth – seeking out his lost love. But, as with most things in his life, things don't run smoothly, in this case a riot breaks out meaning he has to escape from his apartment block. Taking the time to warn Penny, who, amazingly, has shacked back up with her boyfriend, the three make good their escape only to be thwarted when Penny is unable to remember where her car is and then unable to manoeuvre out of the parking space until Dodge nicks her Achilles heel – he tells her he knows where there is a plane that will enable her to escape to see her family; this gives her the impetus to run, leaving behind her hapless boyfriend in the process. Thus begins a road trip where Penny and Dodge, each with their own motivations, escape the city to try and find solace; little do they know they will find it in each other.
A lot of criticism has been aimed at the film particularly during this middle portion, the main one being the constant tonal shifts in the narrative, but I really don’t agree. Up until now we’ve seen the world through Dodge’s eyes, somewhat like an outsider where events happen, some humorous some not so much, but there is always a definite line of pathos. When Penny enters his life and they leave the city things brighten considerably; she has metaphorically and, indeed, literally brought light into his life. Whist this is a big shift in tone, there are a number of encounters that threaten to derail it and indeed the whole thing lives under the shadow of death from above; thus there are constant tonal shifts as our protagonists deal with the hand they are dealt moving from dark to light in what amounts to a chequered existence. As they travel life’s weary mile one thing remains true, their growing affection for each other – and whilst this is not entirely unexpected given the very nature of the film it is refreshingly well handled given the inevitability of the journey. Indeed it seems each encounter that the couple come across is destined to have one outcome even if that’s being arrested for speeding or taking time out on a beach to sit with those being baptised. The journey is as much about getting there as it is the final destination – and when that destination is in front of them, even then decisions have to be made and hard ones at that.
It is difficult to discuss the final act without entering too far into spoiler territory, I will do my best, but be warned, if in any doubt skip forward. Penny and Dodge become very close, each seeing in the other that kindred spirit so lacking in their lives before, but, unlike the rest of the world who are so intent on exploring emotions to the fullest, they are still reserved enough to hold something back: their feelings of co-dependence. The revelation of the pilot who owns the plane is again, rather predictable, if you were listening at the beginning of the film, but nevertheless it is still a much needed portion as this reconciliation allows Dodge to make the decision he does – having made peace he gives what he has earned away in one last ditch effort of generosity; giving his all and everything – the ultimate sacrifice for love. Anyone that has been in love and had to make terrible choices will know and understand, and whilst the film doesn’t linger on ‘the greater good’ it is a powerful statement and boldly chosen. But that is not the end of the story. And the final scenes are what take this tender and charming film up another level. Again, not entirely unexpected, but the last words spoken convey more feeling than the rest of the film – especially considering they will be the last ever spoken.
Now, I am quite prepared to admit that I may be seeing far more in the film than was originally intended, especially considering it’s a romantic comedy about the end of the world. However Scafaria has taken an old idea, that of the end of the world, but looked at those left behind rather than those out to be the saviours. Whilst no one can predict how the individual, a group or, indeed, society as a whole, will behave with such devastating news, she decides to cover all the bases. But instead of concentrating on the broader picture decides to tell the story of two lost individuals while chaos reigns around them. This does give the narrative some predictability, as alluded to above, though the ticking clock does give some spontaneity and originality to the story.
There are a number of terrific cameos as well, William Petersen does a fantastic turn as a trucker suffering from a terminal illness (given six months to live only to be informed that the world will end in three weeks!), Connie Britton and Rob Corddry are the hosts of the party that Dodge has such a hard time with, Melanie Lynskey and Patton Oswalt are guests at the same while T.J. Miller and Martin Sheen both make notable guest appearances. None get a great deal of screen time, nor any depth to their characters (possible exception of Sheen) but their familiar faces add that little extra something.
The film nips along with a fairly regular pace and while the story line does meander along a little, especially in the road trip portion, there is always a narrative drive to the character motivations. You could say the film is always leading towards the inevitable conclusion and that is exactly the point – the human capacity to love reaches beyond the destruction of the planet, because if you do find that someone special then you simply do not ever want to be parted – the end of the world can be embraced if you can never be happier. Lofty ideals, comedy, romance and the end of the world. What more could you ask for?