With Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, William Peterson. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. Rated R (for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence). 101 minutes.
SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is a difficult film to classify. It doesn’t help that it’s saddled with an odd title. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising since it marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Lorene Scafaria, best known for a similarly offbeat film with a weird title, “Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” This is a science fiction movie where the science fiction takes place off-screen. However, if you give yourself over to its “what if” premise, it turns out to be funny and moving and thought-provoking. Cynics need not apply.
The film opens with a newscast announcing that the last hope of stopping a meteor heading towards Earth has failed and that, in three weeks, the planet is doomed. As with last year’s “Melancholia,” which had a similar premise, the focus is not on scientists and others try to stave off the inevitable or save some remnant of humanity. Instead our attention is on Dodge (Steve Carell), an insurance salesman whose wife has reacted to the news by running away. What should he do with the time he has remaining?
That’s the real question of the film and, as in “Melancholia,” there’s a lot of denial among those facing the end. However this is also the flip side of that film in that it finds the dark humor in the situation, as well as showing some people choosing to face the end with faith, hope and love. It’s a delicate high-wire act that Scafaria has set for herself and she brings it off wonderfully.
At first we see a lot of people behaving badly. Fewer people show up for work because, after all, what’s the point? There are riots in the city and suicide is not uncommon, including hiring someone to assassinate you. Others continue in their normal routines as if nothing has changed, including Dodge’s maid. When he tells her there’s no reason to keep cleaning his apartment, she thinks she’s being fired.
Others engage in orgies of one sort or another, and a suburban party scene where people are out of control displays outrageous behavior with deadpan seriousness, earning some of the best laughs in the film. Ultimately, Dodge makes the acquaintance of his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) who has just broken up with her boyfriend and has a fondness for old vinyl records. They leave New York for Delaware. Dodge hopes to track down an old girlfriend before the end and to get Penny to a private pilot who might get her home to England and her parents. Things don’t turn out quite as expected.
Carell and Knightley are an odd combination for a road trip movie but they underplay their roles to perfection. If you know you have only a limited time left do you simply not care or do you focus on the things that are really worth caring about? In that sense the movie is a metaphor for life. We in the audience may have more than three weeks left, but are you just killing time or doing something with it?
From “When Worlds Collide” to “Armageddon” and “Melancholia,” the “end of the world” story is a science fiction staple. Instead of featuring special effects, “Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World” focuses on two lonely people. If you’re willing to go along, this is a movie that is much more emotionally satisfying than the pile of failed melodramas and romantic comedies that have gotten released thus far this year.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.