Oblivion by means of utter planetary destruction is something to expect from the misanthropic quarters of the film world, whether it is your Ingmar Bergman’s or your Las Von Trier’s (Melancholia). It is the last thing you would expect from the directorial début of the screenwriter behind the idiosyncratic indie romance Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Lorene Scafaria. Irrespective of what one might presume, here is Seeking a friend for the end of the world with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.
The opening scene of Scafaria’s film sees Dodge (Carell) and his wife pulled over at the side of the road listening to a radio report which states that the mission to destroy a meteor heading towards earth has failed; as a result all mankind will be destroyed in 3 weeks. Upon hearing this, Dodge’s wife instantly runs away into the night leaving him alone to contemplate his impending doom. Heading home, Dodge is met by Penny (Knightley), a manic pixie girl/super hipster, crying outside his window, who is met with the sobering realisation that she will never see her family again. With phone lines down and traditional modes of communication dead and society falling to pieces around them, they forge an unlikely friendship in which Dodge helps Penny get home if Penny helps Dodge reconnect with the true love of his life.
Seeking a friend for the end of the world is a hard film to pin down due to the many shifts of tone and intention it incorporates. True to the expectations of the apocalypse sub-genre, the first act explores what would become of society when the rules no longer exist. Without the worry of disease or the long-term, people become much more sexually loose and experimental with their alcohol and drugs intake. Outside the households, society is on fire and marching across America in a wave of destruction. People who don’t want to wait and be smashed by their impending doom and too weak-willed to commit suicide, take hits out on themselves. Somewhere within this cute sci-fi romantic comedy is the ground work for a fascinating exploitation film.
As it turns out the incoming apocalypse is only something to hang the unlikely duo’s road trip across America. No matter what genre a film falls in, a road trip is only as interesting as the people who are doing it. Seeking a Friend’s Penny and Dodge are a divisive pairing, not only in their archetypes but their dialogue, actions and motivation.
When Penny is faced with rioters the only belongings she picks up are an armful of records which are patently going to serve as a spur for a later development, even without that what sort of person saves their records when humanity seizes to exist in 3 short weeks? Moreover Penny comes out with the line; “tell me your life story, so we aren’t strangers anymore” nobody talks like that. It’s hard to believe a character when they do something jarring.
Dodge doesn’t come out with any questionable dialogue; he does however do some stupid things at the spoiler end of the 100 minute running time, much like the film itself. More instant is how tiresome his character is. Like Bill Murray, Steve Carell has mastered a wonderfully sullen expression. But the writing isn’t good enough to make his character anything other than a bore. As a pairing these two just don’t convince.
An unconvincing on-screen partnership by two actors on great form, Carell is doing his bread and butter so to expect anything less than the goods would be hypocritical much more impressive is Knightley’s turn. Her Penny is the sort of role that real life manic pixie girl Zooey Deschanel lives off, for Knightley this is new territory and she takes to it really well, she also takes the comedy soundly.
Apart the problems with actor chemistry and contentious character archetypes, there is a glaring inevitability in the way the film progresses. Even with these two people have nothing in common, the story beats can be seen a mile off, such time-worn storytelling lessens the thrill.
Elsewhere, the experience is everything it needs to be when it needs to be it. When it wants to be funny it is, with cameos from Patton Oswalt, William Petersen and Gillian Jacobs stealing the limelight. When it wants to be satirical and interesting in its gaze at desperation, it achieves it through drama and humour. Most of the lesser story beats are successful and the cast is uniformly excellent, if only it was a little braver when it matters most. Benign or chancy, Lorene Scafaria has plenty to be proud of in her striking directorial début.