In the first scene of Lorene Scafaria’s film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Dodge (Steve Carell) is sitting in a stalled car with his wife, listening to a radio broadcast. They receive news that the final attempt to destroy a meteor has failed, and that all life on Earth will be wiped out in about three weeks’ time. All Dodge can say is, weakly, “I think we missed our turn.” Without saying a word, his wife exits the car and literally runs from him, leaving Dodge dissolute and at a loss for words. It’s a maudlin moment, undercut by the radio’s sudden blast of The Beach Boys. That polished vacillation between the maudlin and the silly seems to mark Scafaria’s film, which is essentially a romance which regards big questions about mortality from a safe, sentimental distance. And seeing as the world does indeed end by the film’s conclusion (no spoiler there), it ultimately ends on a melancholic and kind of sentimental note.
Along the way, however, the film teeters on the brink of near-slapstick, as Dodge is repeatedly presented as a sad sack whose life has not come into focus, even after the news that no life will exist in three weeks’ time. Dodge is not the kind of fellow who, like most of his peers, now takes this opportunity to live a life without consequences. The first thing to go is propriety, and Dodge attends parties wherein neighbors’ wives try to seduce him, and people only do heroin. “No one is anyone’s anything anymore,” someone explains to him. Dodge is more of the attitude of Mr. Watanabe from Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru; excess had never much interested him, and indulging in sexual exploits and hard drugs are no more interesting to him now than they were before. He’s still stinging from his abandonment, and seems to want to put his romantic life in order more than anything. The only person in his life who continues on as if nothing is different is his hard-working Latina maid, for whom propriety seems to be noble.
The writing in Seeking a Friend is sharp throughout great stretches, and does seem to capture the freeing chaos that inevitable Armageddon might bring. Dodge continues to go to his job, but most people have already abandoned the office, tried setting it on fire, or just outright committed suicide. There’s a sad/funny scene wherein Dodge’s boss offers the position of CFO to any of the dozen employees remaining at the company.
Sadly, this funny/melancholy velocity is interrupted by the appearance of Penny (Keira Knightley), the British MPD that lives downstairs from Dodge. MPDs, or Manic Pixie Dreamgirls, seem to be standard issue for most romances these days. Penny, sporting a wispy floral dress, and ever-clutching her favorite Scott Walker records, encourages Dodge to track down his long lost girlfriend, The One Who Got Away, while Dodge attempts to find Penny a flight back to her home in England so she can spend her last few days with her family. The resulting wacky road trip, however wacky it may be, is darkened by the inevitable death and desperation around them. To the film’s credit, the two of them do have sex with wild abandon at least once (in the parking lot of a T.G.I. Friday’s no less). No points for guessing that Dodge and Penny end up falling in love just in time for the apocalypse. The view of the world at the end is an interesting balance between the chaos and the fear that many would likely encounter. The film brings a kind of confused nobility to Dodge, who stands as a button-down everyman. But the love story angle, i.e. the whole reason this story is being told, is trite.
It’s a film that is half thoughtful and half sentimental, which ends up, as I suppose it must, dripping with no small amount of maple syrup. It’s ends on a sweet note, but the teary scenes of reconciliation feel clunky. And Penny is so frantic and giggly and, well, manic, that she feels more like a construct than Dodge’s defeated everyman. I was intrigued, but I feel the film ultimately fell a little flat. Which may be a sad comment on the end of the world. No bangs. And just a little more than a whimper.