How would you react if the world was only a few weeks away from being smashed apart by a meteor? The politically-correct answer would be: “Spend time with family and friends,” which would be true for some people. But a more honest answer might be: “Do loads of heroin, sleep with everything that moves, and go out in a blaze of hedonistic glory.” There are other options as well, and writer-director Lorene Scafaria attempts to explore them in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. The problem is that she doesn’t know how to explore them. The film does a wonderful job putting the audience in the mindset of staring at the world’s end, but tonally the film never quite manages to balance its darker elements with an upbeat romantic comedy. The film desperately needs an emotional anchor, but it’s sadly adrift with no chemistry between the lead actors.
A meteor is only three weeks from hitting the Earth, and in this time of crisis, Dodge (Steve Carell) has been left by his wife, he’s walking around in a daze as he continues to go to his job, and he can’t bring himself to join in the hedonistic frenzy his friends have adopted. As the world’s final days wind down, he pines for the one-who-got-away, and ends up befriending Penny (Keira Knightley), who desperately wants to get back to England to be with her family (all commercial airlines have been shut down). The two make an arrangement: Penny will help Dodge get back to his lost love, and Dodge will get her to a private plane. Along their road trip, the two end up bonding (or at least, that’s what the script intends) as they witness how other people are spending their last days on Earth.
Seeking a Friend‘s greatest accomplishment is making its audience seriously consider the ramifications of a coming apocalypse. Scafaria embraces the multitude of reactions including riots, suicides, finding God, or simply trying to maintain some sense of normalcy in the face of the coming apocalypse. This approach makes the film strongly life-affirming as we ponder how we would spend not only our last days, but how we’re spending our present ones. Why are we putting off what we’ve always wanted to do? It may be a bad idea to start mainlining heroin (and the film never advocates this kind of behavior), but why have we put off reconnecting with an old friend, healing an old wound, or simply doing something we always wanted to try (again: not heroin)? What’s stopping us and why would it take an apocalypse to spur us to action?
It’s a serious-minded question wrapped in a candy-coated, ill-conceived romantic comedy shell. Scafaria is eager to display both the hope and despair of the situation, but she never achieves the proper balance nor does her approach highlight the irony of the situation. The romantic comedy is the safest, most banal of all film genres, but this style doesn’t come off as a comic or thoughtful contrast. Instead, it feels like a security blanket, and it drains the movie of what makes it special, and the movie’s few truly dark moments, like when one of Dodge’s co-workers commits suicide by plummeting onto the hood of Dodge’s car, aren’t frequent enough to add a sense of danger and impending doom. From the second act onwards until the very end, Seeking a Friend is designed more to comfort and console in a moderately melancholy fashion.
These incongruities may have worked around a strong central relationship which would have channeled this hodgepodge of tonalities, but the movie has absolutely no foundation due to the lack of chemistry between Carell and Knightley. Seeking a Friend is an unconventional romance (even though it’s shot like one) and one where we can accept that the circumstances would push two people to forget a deep, unbreakable bond in a short amount of time. Sadly, we never see that kind of bond form between Dodge and Penny because it always feels like the actors are talking at each other rather than to each other. One of the film’s largest themes is freedom: freedom to finally make amends, to try new things, to change our brief lives. But there’s no freedom in the performances. Carell and Knightley both come off as rigid and flat, and it doesn’t seem like there was any room for improvisation, ad-libbing or the slightest deviation from a bland script. Penny and Dodge start out as neighbors, and emotionally it never feels like they’re relationship goes any deeper than that casual acquaintance even though the script wants to convince us that these two people were truly lucky to find each other.
There’s a deep sadness and longing at the core of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It’s undeniable and begging to be embraced, but Scafaria and her lead actors seem too confined to truly acknowledge what sets their movie apart. The comic elements are almost always too safe, the romantic elements are too rigid, but with the right lead actors, the film could have been absolutely heartbreaking. Instead, we’re left mostly cold with only introspection to keep us warm.