Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 07/18/12 07:08:33

"Not essential viewing before the end of the world."
3 stars (Average)

Releasing a film under the title “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is a ballsy gamble, and one that failed to pay dividends for studios Indian Paintbrush and Mandate Pictures last month. The film crashed on its opening weekend and is currently standing on a feeble $6 million domestic total, despite warmish reviews and the presence of recognisable Hollywood players Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. Placing a rom-com within an apocalyptic setting is a smart conceit, one that debuting director Lorene Scafaria has intermittent success with, but upsetting the picture’s stature is the feeling of a missed opportunity. It’s a satisfactory flick, packed with decent acting, moderate imagination and a wonderfully sincere ending, but there are sizeable chunks of the bloated second act which feel like inconsequential padding. It’s as if Scafaria had an hour of excellent material, but in order to fill out her feature length ambitions, needlessly cooked up another half-baked 50 minutes. The odd yet endearing dynamic between Carell and Knightley combined with the incisive pitch keeps “Seeking a Friend for the End of the Wold” consistently palatable, but it’s clear the picture could have been so much more.

The end of days is nigh, a 70 mile wide Meteorite named Matilda plummeting toward Earth, mankind’s final attempts to prevent it amounting to failure. This is the news Dodge (Steve Carell) receives as his wife Linda (Nancy Carell, in a cheeky cameo) ups and leaves him, running into the night without so much as a word. A heartbroken Dodge decides to hold his daily routine as the planet’s life expectancy diminishes around him, bemusement, suicide and a desire for instant gratification the most common reactions from friends and colleagues. One evening whilst looking through mementos, Dodge meets neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley), a spirited young woman with an unusually upbeat outlook given the circumstances. Penny convinces Dodge he needs to go and find his first love, a High-School sweetheart, and in return Dodge promises to try and reunite Penny with her family. Together they set off across the roaming countryside, encountering a range of characters and situations that help put their current situation in perspective.

Scafaria is clearly more comfortable with a pen than a camera, her dialogue and characters are subtly quite rich, but her editorial skills and general panache for visual storytelling are more blunted. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” should be applauded for upholding an honest and well intentioned tone for the majority of its runtime, a rarity for an R-rated comedy (although this is one of the softest R-ratings I can recall in recent years), yet portions of the narrative definitely frustrate. The middle segment is a structural nightmare, Scafaria haphazardly chucking in characters and notions that she has no proper intention of exploring. For instance a past boyfriend of Penny’s arrives on the scene, seemingly introduced as a plot device and potential comedic foil, yet Scafaria lingers around him for too long, threatening to do something interesting, but never quite finding the focus or conviction. It’s missteps like this that render the movie both sporadically forgettable and undeniably overlong, there’s no reason why the film had to pass the 90 minute mark, yet the artist drags it out for nearly two hours. Maybe it’s her relatively green status (Scafaria’s biggest credit prior to this was penning 2008’s divisive teen comedy “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”), but for whatever reason there are enough fundamental wobbles to prevent this adequate vehicle from ascending to the greatness its central premise teases.

The setting is established succinctly and vibrantly, Scafaria even letting a little rioting, violence and drug abuse trickle into her otherwise innocent work. The connection between Carell and Knightley also works rather brilliantly; it’s one of the more weirdly inspired casting decisions of the last year. Carell is understated, funny and likeable (it’s a similar turn to the one he gave in last year’s superior “Crazy Stupid Love”) and Knightley is quirky and lively without being irritating. The arcs that Scafaria lays out feel organic and truthfully pieced together, a strength that lends the picture’s inevitable denouement a genuine hint of tender tragedy. It’s no big spoiler to confirm that the world does indeed end come the finale, but that’s never the primary fixation of this movie. Instead it’s about a journey and more importantly a relationship, the latter done with such assurance and attention to emotional detail that the final sequence is genuinely heart-breaking. The fact Carell and Knightley up their otherwise totally respectable game for this moment doesn’t hurt either.

The comedic tone jumps between breezy and amiable to something much darker with ease. There are smirks to be derived from the desperate reactions of certain individuals; it is after all strange to see mainstream fare mine laughter from topics like assisted suicide, yet “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” does just that, and does it enjoyably. It’s a pleasant movie, which occasionally rises to stations befitting of its concrete resolution, but regularly it just feels like an above average and rather ordinary multiplex offering. There’s indisputably more in the tank, but hey, when it’s half-full with something this digestible, there’s no real sense in complaining.

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