There’s much to admire about Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the most pleasant surprise of the summer movie season. It’s very smart in the way it looks at how we often delude ourselves into thinking all is well, simply because we’re too frightened to upset our personal status quo. It’s quite wry in its approach to the apocalypse at its center – an asteroid is due to crash into the Earth in three weeks – as it looks at a wide range of human behavior with a comic sensibility. It recognizes that most of us would react to this situation in a self-serving manner that’s all too human. But most of all, this is a film that sticks to its convictions as Scafaria never waivers in her belief that true love can prevail in the face of annihilation, a notion that somehow is more romantic because it is so naďve.
Steve Carell is Dodge, an insurance salesman whose name defines his approach to life. He’s successfully avoided talking to his wife about their dysfunctional relationship and he continues to go to work as the clock ticks down to the Earth’s demise, deciding to ignore this minor problem by sticking to his routine. One of the most touching things about the film is seeing many instances in which characters adopt this line of thought. Some continue to mow their lawns, others conduct garage sales and, most poignantly, Dodge’s cleaning woman continues to show up every Tuesday afternoon, upset that her employer would dream of suggesting she deviate from her routine. We all have our cocoons and making sure things are spic and span in a messy world is hers.
After his wife leaves him and his friends invite him to an end-of-the-world bacchanal, Dodge continues to stick to his plan, which consists of nothing. That is until his solitary wait for the end is upset by Penny (Keira Knightley), a flighty young woman who happens to be his neighbor and who also seems to have her priorities out of whack. The end of the world doesn’t seem to phase her as much as being dumped by her loser of a boyfriend. Circumstances throw Dodge and Penny together and they decide to hit the road – he to find his high school sweetheart and she to track down a plane that will take her home to England so that she might be with her family to face the end.
The movie takes its time, which is a daring thing to do in this era of attention-deficit filmmaking. While some may mistake its leisurely pace as a mistake by Scafaria in her directorial debut, it’s a deliberate strategy so that we can get to know Dodge and Penny as they get to know each other. She can sleep through anything. He couldn’t be impulsive on a bet. She’s irresponsible and bad with time. He’s angry at his father who left him at an early age. She has a good heart despite her lack of follow-through. He can crack a smile, and when he does it’s a good one because it’s well earned.
We learn all of this about Dodge and Penny as they travel through a world in its death throes, where survivalists are matter-of-fact about their plans to restart society, the term “casual restaurant” has taken on a new meaning and dogs still maintain their title as “man’s best friend,” providing an unshakeable emotional oasis in the face of complete chaos. The ironic comedic tone Scafaria maintains throughout – suffused with wry commentary and a matter-of-fact attitude that never fails to generate a laugh – is a remarkable and assured feat. But even more impressive is her unwavering devotion to the romantic, and not in a traditional sense. A scene in which Dodge and Penny spend a day on the beach with a group that revels in the miracle of life and are grateful for having such profound experiences as witnessing a child’s smile underscores the film’s sensibility.
A great deal of the film’s success must go to Carell and Knightley who embrace their character’s eccentricities but never forget to remind us that their behaviors come from an honest place. Carell’s stoicism is initially off-putting until we realize it’s a strategy he’s adopted to protect himself. The actor effectively underscores the debilitating nature of this behavior, making his eventual sacrifice all the more moving. Knightley walks a fine line here, never becoming too flaky to the point of irritation, giving us an intelligent young woman who may not act in her own best interests though she goes out of her way to look out for others. These two have never been finer.
My suspicion is that World will go undiscovered amid the much louder and emptier fare of the summer movie season, a tragedy for those that admire films that are actually about something and have the courage to examine genuine human emotions. That’s a shame as it contains a vital message, told in a moving and memorable fashion. While it might take the end of the world to prod Dodge into action, the rest of us shouldn’t wait that long to live a fulfilling life. There are many small moments waiting to occur if only we open ourselves up to the possibility that we deserve all the good things that come our way.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.