Movie Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
The Charlotte Observer
“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” So said Samuel Johnson, and his idea carries over into “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.”
The characters in Lorene Scafaria’s film actually have three weeks before an extinction event, the collision of a monstrous asteroid with our planet in the near future. The space shuttle sent to deflect or destroy it has failed, and scientists can predict the day it will smash into the Earth, rendering the atmosphere unlivable for human beings.
Writer-director Scafaria avoids so many pitfalls that I’m tempted to praise the movie for what it doesn’t do.
Nobody saves the Earth at the last moment, as a Hollywood blockbuster would require. Nobody mounts a rocket for the stars, carrying the hopes of future generations.
But the film has two active virtues, too. It shows human beings in all their pitiable, noble, stupid or sensitive modes of action, and it reminds us there’s always time to fall in love, if only for a few days.
In the opening scene, an insurance salesman named Dodge (Steve Carell) watches his wife walk away from the marriage that stopped mattering to her long ago. Over the rest of the movie, Dodge seeks some point to living. (He’s not suicidal, just tired and befuddled and morose.)
All around him, psychological barriers fall. Women who once cared about commitment or disease have indiscriminate sex. Violent rioters loot stores and prowl streets. Folks at an upscale suburban party gleefully try heroin. Survivalists go underground and shut their shelter doors.
Yet some people keep returning faithfully to desks or cubicles. Dodge’s housekeeper seems puzzled when he urges her to stop coming to work and spend time with her children, then relieved when he tells her she’s not fired.
Dodge fits nowhere. While he’s bobbing around, paired with a mutt someone literally tied to his leg as he slept in a park, Fate gives him a purpose: He meets Penny (Keira Knightley), who’d like to spend one last day with her parents in England. Dodge knows someone a few hundred miles away who owns a private plane and owes him a favor, and off they drive.
Scafaria drafted familiar actors for tiny parts: Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, Melanie Lynskey, William Petersen, Adam Brody, Derek Luke and someone whose surprise appearance shouldn’t be spoiled each get a few good moments.
The focus stays on the leads. Carell is an empathy magnet, and his restrained delivery and mournful face keep us on his side. Knightley can sometimes be grating in full-on dramatic mode, but her blunt performance here has pathos to it: Penny makes a lot of noise because she doesn’t know what to say and wants to hide her insecurity.
If we met these people in real life, we’d know they were wrong for each other: The differences in age and culture and temperament would be too great to overcome. And if the world weren’t ending, we might not want them to stay together in a movie, either.
But in these circumstances, we do. The point is not that two unlikely people will now fall deeply in love; it’s that two weary souls who had run away from commitment for so long – there’s a reason he’s named “Dodge” – discover that they’re capable of caring, after all. That’s something to celebrate, even if we’re dancing on the edge of extinction.